The Synagogue of the Democratic Party

SYNAGOGUE BETH SIMCHAS HUBERT HUMPHREY AND THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY

I think we all need a religion of one sort or another.  I was raised as a Jew, and in my youth I endeavored to remain true to Judaism as much as possible.  However, as I aged I became adrift from my Hebraic moorings and my Jewish identity waned until it was a mere gastrointestinal predilection centered on the consumption of certain Eastern European Jewish delicacies.

However, even when I was young I don’t really think I ever truly believed that there was a good G-d watching over me and the children of Israel, and most of my co-religionists seemed to feel the same way.  We were too intelligent to believe and we had suffered too much.  A long history of persecution capped with the crematoria of the Holocaust were enough to disprove the notion of a G-d that was all powerful and good. And our intelligence, and our love affair with science, made us find redemption in Medicine and Technology.  If there was no G-d we could trust, we would place our faith in our ability to understand the world this fickle G-d has given us by creating vaccines, antibiotics, and developing a more and more meticulous understanding of the microscopic machinations at the cellular and sub-cellular levels of life.  If we could not reach the heavens above, we would sink down into the nook and cranny of our bodies and personally root out the Pharoahs of cancer and all other maladies known to man.

For those who did not master science, the religious vocation veered towards the social and political and this meant the creation of a Heaven on Earth.  This would be accomplished through  the all-redeeming Humanism of Socialism which, we were sure,  would enforce the Golden Rule. However, by the time I was born, Socialism had been largely swept under the rug in Jewish America.  Stalin made Marxism suspect, and Joe Mc Carthy was certain everyone concurred.  Besides, in the Fifties and Sixties, Americans were enjoying unprecedented levels of wealth, and the stark class schemata of Socialism seemed dated and out of place.

And so we found another religion, somewhat tepid, less than cosmic, and without the grandiosity of burning bushes.  This was a religion of speeches, and position papers.  Press releases and parades.  This was the religion of Democratic Party Politics.

The Democratic Party ended the Depression, destroyed Nazi Germany, and, through Saint Harry Truman, recognized the State of Israel.  And when I was a child, it was giving my elderly relatives, who gave me the manna of Gefilte Fish and Hannukah candies, medicare cards, which they proudly displayed upon receipt of same as if they were indulgences granting entry into Heaven.

We adored the Democratic Party.  My elderly relatives could not get enough of Hubert Humphrey, who couldn’t shut up, and perhaps loved him just because he couldn’t shut up.  His endless speeches were like a very long service in the Synagogue which might get boring at times but we knew were good for you.  Quite simply, we were in love with all of the political progeny of Franklyn Roosevent, notwithstanding accounts that he was not sufficiently aggressive in rescuing European Jewry.  We forgave FDR because we knew how the other side felt about us.  We knew that the more conservative elements in this Country called Jewish refugees the refuJews, believed that every other Jewish refugee was a germ spreading infectious communism, and in law school we learned, in Hines v. Davidowitz, that the State of Pennsylvania had enacted a statute, struck down as unconstitutional, which would have restricted the ingress of Eastern Europeans into the territories of virginal, Christian Pennsylvania.  Maybe Roosevelt didn’t do enough to save Europe’s Jews, but the Republicans would have done less, and you had to learn to deal with the hand you had been dealt.

No, politics was not about getting it all.  It was about compromise and negotiation, and so we cherished such very ungrandiose and unheroic figures as Adlai Stevenson, who, brilliant as he was, never charged any gauntlets, never gave sermons on any Mount, and never split the Waters of any Sea.  An oblique criticism of water and damn policies in the Far West would be more his style.

And so if you listen to old newsreels of Democratic Party politicians talking and debating, there usually are no thunderous roars.  Instead there is this pervasive sound of respiratory and upper respiratory distress.  Of tired men with raspy voices who sounded as if some evil Republican had shoved an emory board down their throats and scraped away their laranxes.  Of perpetual bronchial and deep bronchial coughs, fulminating with mucus or dry as Lyndon Johnson’s ranch, and creating the aural spectre of pneumonia or tuberculosis or carcinoma of the lung.  And this made them seem so very Jewish.  Most of my relatives were old and sick, or made an outstanding effort to live the lives of old and sick people, and so I knew the Democrats, like my Jewish relatives, were always deep in pain.  Jews and Democrats weren’t flashy and well groomed like Thomas Dewey.  We Jews and Democrats weren’t obnoxious grand dames like Clare Luce Booth who flaunted her money and beauty in Depression-era New York like some pagan Cleopatra. We were more like Lyndon Johnson, getting appendicitis on the election night of his first run for Congress, getting kidney stones when he ran for the Senate, having a life marred by heart attacks, and even before the heart attacks, living a life completely obsessed by insecurity and illness, carrying around trunks filled with pills and lotions on his various campaigns.

Democrats were, in a word, a little bit miserable, and we were, in a word, more than a little bit miserable, and Democrats cared about the miserable people.  We didn’t have those vast expanses of aristocratic Estates of Protestant Privilege that haughtily looked down on us from Westchester and Connecticut.

Connecticut, of course, was the worst.  Although most people think of the NorthEast as staunchly democratic, they forget that until very recently it was solidly Republican.  Although the NorthEast and Middle Atlantic States were flooded by immigrants in the years leading up to World War One, it took some time for those immigrants to become citizens, to vote, and to find their home in the Democratic Party.  And until the Catholic and Jewish immigrants, and their descendants, made their presence felt, Northern votes were primarily white Protestant votes, and these votes were Republican votes for numerous reasons, not the least of which was that the Democratic Party was the party of Southern insurrection and irresponsibility.

Connecticut, by contrast, was responsibility incarnate.  It was old.  It was settled by a plenitude of grim-faced English puritans. It was Yale.  It was sure of itself, of laissez faire, of the infinite equity of devoting thousands of acres to golf while thousands of poor people lived on less than a few acres of land in the shoebox tenements of the slums.  It was, after all, the Connecticut of “Christmas in Connecticut,” starring Barbara Stanwick, and after three centuries of establishing themselves and being responsible, it had become a land of trust fund brats, where upper middle class people always have every conceivable Christmas ornament, and a big fat goose for Christmas dinner, and were as conscious of financial worry as a fat and sloppy  two year old.

And Connecticut, from its airy Northern Perch, ensconced in hills in Towns like New Canaan (I hated that name; it’s as if they were trying to eradicate the legacy and memory of Ancient Israel by resurrecting the name the land hand before it was settled by Abraham), looked down on New York City.  They looked down on the teeming Irish and Jews and Italians crowded into tenements like raisons jammed into stuffed cabbage.  They looked down on the subway cars, which hurtled us through cavernous tunnels and jostled us around in a world of ever-present economic anxiety so that soon the food we ate ran through our system like an A train going express from 59th Street to 125th Street.  They saw us tremble, and they seemed to enjoy it so much that soon some of us, such as Woody Allen, made a living out of letting them see us tremble, creating movie after movie in which the protagonist is always the petrified, impoverished, pathetic, heart-palpitating Jew.

But, although Connecticut was beautiful and august and dreamt it was England and Rome and Greece all rolled-up into one, it was, relative to New York, sparsely populated.  New York, by contrast, was overflowing with unwanted people like refuse not collected in the 1967 sanitation strike, festering, simmering, stinking for a fight.  And so one square block in New York could cancel-out and negate the votes of a land mass a thousand times its size.

And so I became in love with election returns, whether they be current or whether they be results from mythic elections of long ago.  The way some boys talked about batting averages, I talked about votes.   I was in love with the Count, with the Big City Count, with the mammoth almost industrial quality of those margins from those sunless precincts where votes were stacked as high as cans of peas at the A & P:  437 for Johnson, 28 for Goldwater;  or 557 for Humphrey, 56 for Nixon; or 896 for Roosevelt, 36 for Landon.

These were neighborhoods that made up their minds.  There was none of that wishy washiness you found in some boring towns..  No 55 percent to 45 percent.  None of the ambiguity of rich suburbs  where the Republican orientation of corporate men was offset by the vague, wistful  bohemian aspirations and purportedly liberal inclinations of very educated women who voted Democratic.  Indeed, in our lockstep uniformity we seemed close to mocking the democratic ideal.  We didn’t believe in political pluralism.  We knew that an individual on his own in the economic landscape would be lunch for a corporate titan and needed a union.  A Union. As in uniformity.  As in something transcending the fairy tale idea that each man should vote in accordance with his heart’s true promptings.

So we belted out votes like guys in barroom brawls kicking the entire State of Kansas in the jaw with a left hook from the Bronx, where the Democrats pulled in over eighty percent of the vote.  We turned all the granite of rock ribbed Republican North New England into dust with the firecrackers of New York’s ChinaTown and all its adjacent immigrant wards, wards which, at the turn of the Century, were more congested than anything in Bangladesh, were more concentrated that any spot on this Earth save Hitler’s worst concentration and death camps, wards where people lived five in a room, ten in a room, fifteen in a room and died like flies from cholera, TB, and diseases that you weren’t supposed to get anymore in the United States.

And then, like a thermonuclear explosion, the Urban Center smack in the Middle of America, the nation of Cooke County and its Capital City Chicago,  negated all the Republican votes in what seemed to be a radius of a thousand miles around.  Chicago’s Democratic mayors, their face aglow from Scotch, fulminated rage and heaped radioactive scorn on every prim Republican hamlet from Peoria to whatever itty bitty town in Wisconsin that was the home of Joe Mc Carthy.  In Cooke County and Chicago, the Irishmen hadn’t rebelled against liberal democratic traditions of individuality and gone on to class based politics (And then, finding class-based politics too strident for America in the post war era, gone on to become progressive Democrats).  They had never progressed, developmentally, to the point of liberal democracy and individuality.  They were pre-Enlightenment, very medieval, clanishly Catholic, and perfect fodder for the Democratic armies.

I used to linger lovingly over passages of Theodore H. White’s works which recited, in compulsive detail, the utterly unbalanced and one-sided returns from steel towns, giving their hearts to John Kennedy, in 1960; Indian reservations and Chicano slums, voting for Robert Kennedy the day before the night he died, in 1968; and the wards of Central Harlem, voting for Lyndon Johnson, with extra special fervor to make up for the blacks who couldn’t vote for him in Alabama, in 1964.  And I learned a few things about voting up in Harlem and other urban centers.

My aunt, who was not a committed liberal but whose Democratic identity was something that was almost as indelible as her sex, told me that in her day blacks were not the least bit apathetic about voting.  “Oh they come out in droves to vote, they’re lined-up around the block to vote, the line is already over a hundred long at the time the polls are supposed to close, but they don’t have enough machines in black neighborhoods and they always break down.”

And so I learned that if the election is a close one, the Democrat will not win until after midnight, because the treasure chests of Democratic votes come from areas where the voting process is highly dilapidated, under funded and disorganized.

So the Democrats would win in the end, at the latest hours of the night, or in the early hours of morning, as the sun rose up with redemption.  And so for example, in 1976, I decided at 12 midnight that Jimmy Carter had to win the Presidency because he was going to win New York (At that hour, as I recall, Ohio and Mississipi, which are today thought of as the nail biters of the election, seemed to be in Carter’s box), and I knew he was going to win in New York because he was behind by about 51 percent to 49 percent, and that meant he was going to win because at midnight the better neighborhoods had been counted while the crummier parts of town were still waiting to be heard from.

Sometimes, of course, the crummy parts of town are slow in voting because the polls are just a little bit fixed and a little bit rigged.  And if they were, it was okay by me.  When Robert Caro recounted Lyndon Johnson’s machinations to fix the votes in his 1948 Senate race, bussing in Mexicans across the border and giving them a shot of Tequila at the polls, I felt only admiration.  When Teddy White told us that  Cooke County ballots were thrown into Lake Michigan soon after they were counted, to prevent any recounts by annoying Protestant Republicans from downstate, I gleamed with party pride.  Indeed, in 1972 I dreamed of copying a plan eyed by the military in Vietnam.  The Pentagon had thought of seeding clouds with silver nitrate to induce flooding in key regions in North Vietnam.  I thought that the skies above regions that were irredeemably Republican should be similarly corrupted.

And so with enough mass thinking and enough mass voting, and enough mass fraud to correct any deviations from the regimen of mass thinking and mass voting, we could at the end of the night, and at the beginning of the morning, provide a monolith of margins from the urban cores which would cancel out the suburbs, the prairies, the hills, the mountains from sea to shining sea.

And somehow, bunched-up together with so many other teeming masses in my miserable urban core of nameless, anonymous votes, I would imagine flickerings of Paris Communes, and general strikes and rousing Marches in New York’s Union Square, and I could simulate, for a moment, a feeling of unloneliness.

Copyright, David Gottfried, 2003

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