Skip to main content

Confessions of a Might-Have-Been Conservative

ISSUE:  Winter 1996

Or, How Newt and Rush Helped One New York Liberal See the Light and Keep the Faith

Among the curses of possessing a mind filled with the detritus of old books and movies is the discovery that one hungers for a life stripped down to its bare essentials. At 62, a man can acknowledge that he is tired of watching and rumination. I want to trust what I see and feel the way I did as a child. In a world so singular, that is all I can finally ask for from both books and movies. Forget reflection. All that is left for a man like me to argue over is how he can measure the value of what he has learned in his life until now.

In my case, memory commands that I begin by admitting to how political a creature I have always been. “And will remain!” my inner man whispers. Not a pleasant reminder in a nation besieged by the incessant chorus of the rich and powerful urging us to get government “off our backs.” Yet the remnants of past ambition nod in assent. Maybe the lessons of love and war are temporary, but the lessons of a man’s political passions seem curiously permanent. Politics anchor my past, as if everything I once believed in were unalterable. Don’t bother telling me that the lessons aren’t really permanent. I know that. Yet they stain me now and they will stain me in the future, a scar of the personal past. Beyond logic and reason, politics remind a man of who he is and to what he owes his allegiance.

“Almost all the opinions we have are taken on authority and on credit,” writes Montaigne. Rarely do I question those who are truly great. And I am cautious in the arguments I frame even in imagination against a writer like Montaigne. But I’ll risk a dissenting note here. As I grow older, my politics seem cast like a fish net across the life I review. Belief is not merely a reflection of a man’s failed ambition. What Shakespeare’s Marc Anthony says of dead Caesar remains true for the rest of us, too. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. Memory already is.

*   *   *   *

The most troublesome of all the political lessons I learned when I was young is that the politics of the heart and the politics of the head are in a state of perpetual war. The heart may call the tune in the beginning, but sooner or later it will meet with resistance. Questions are asked, demands made. When it comes to how a man lives and what he lives for, the heart and head slash away at each other like verbal duelists. “What is to be done?” asked Lenin. Another shot heard round the world. Only Lenin spoke from his head when he should have spoken from his heart. Before the question was out of his mouth, a terrified world quaked in anticipation of upheavals to come. Those invited to the revolution already knew they would have to serve as their own primary-care physicians.

Maybe that’s why my head tells me that Orwell was wrong when he insisted all writing is political. My heart, on the other hand, tells me he was right to assume that one has no choice but to accept words as the proper response to questions of politics—which didn’t stop Orwell from going to Spain to fight with the anarchist P.O.U.M. Twenty-two when I read Homage to Catalonia, I wept like a boy whose cap pistol has been stolen. One more soldier of the revolution that never came, I still prayed then for the politics of the heart to make sense. Orwell understood that all true political questions are answered by words, not bullets. Writers, even those who as children dreamed of being in the vanguard of the revolution, become the words they use—a truth that eluded Orwell’s contemporaries, as it eluded me in the 60’s and 70’s. That Maoist claptrap still clings to memory, a fungus shriveled into the thin air of history—for better or worse, a legacy of a world I never knew.

*   *   *   *

From the age of 17 on, I thought of myself as what the French call an homme de gauche (it sounds better than “man of the left”). I no longer attempt to distinguish between “liberal” and “left” today, for the times are difficult for us all. It’s enough to admit that I was a willing recruit in the egalitarian ranks. So why do I feel embarrassed to recall the late 1960’s, a supposedly good time for the left in America? Is it because I am watching a movie in my mind, where Karl Liebknecht still rapturously cries out, “We are at the gates of heaven!” In 1969, the future was kissed by pastel posters—slogans, flowers growing out of gun barrels, words to live by. Reality had not yet cooled me out, but I understood even then that the Buddha of The Little Red Book was no Liebknecht. Bullets came from guns. Yet the power Mao hungered after came from words alone.

For it was words that described a man’s passions and fears, words with which he would create all the brave new worlds. Forget gun barrels! Forget those sybaritic flower children blowing themselves into patches of flesh and bone in that brownstone on Eleventh Street, their minds as shredded as the American Express credit card discovered in the rubble. Were those children of the revolution that never came blown away by a home-made bomb alone? Or did they die from an excess of devotion to the abstract gods of revolution? Think of intellect issuing commands to spirit, like a top sergeant barking orders to raw recruits. What those Ivy League innocents didn’t know was that words are the reality behind bullets, not the noisy blanks of middle-class collegians seeking adventure.

Such knowledge should have comforted me. But it didn’t. To be on the left in the chaotic America of the late 60’s and early 70’s—with its protests against the war in Viet Nam, its civil rights struggle, its sexuality flowing like an endless beer keg at a fraternity party—was to recognize the extraordinary power of words. How else could I view what politics had wrought than as a pledge to the potential power of language? Political people believed in words because words, not bullets, were what they used to persuade others of the justice of their cause.

*   *   *   *

Words were the most effective tool the left possessed in the 1970’s. Yet in 1995, that same left is having its brains beaten out—and by words, not bullets. On the playing fields it once owned, the words have been turned against it. Not only does conservatism now possess the money and impetus, it now possesses the words also. Wherever one looks, the left is on the defensive, its sense of mission broken, its remedies for what ails this nation contemptuously dismissed. Like it or not, the conservative vision has seized America’s young. It is to the right, not to the left, that they have been moving over the past 20 years.

Yet I continue to think of myself as part of what Rush Limbaugh loves to berate as “the liberal left.” Not that I mind being targeted by Rush. In itself, that flatters me. My problem is that I am no longer sure of exactly what is left or liberal about my politics. I am surprised at the extent to which those of us who identify with the left have surrendered the idea of a just society. In 1969, the dominant issue facing us was the quest for social and economic justice. The American left had less to do with questions of “life-style” than with questions of who owed what to whom. Even the Marxists among us didn’t take the idea of history’s “new man” seriously. They hadn’t taken it seriously since the 1930’s, when the left in America learned to pride itself on its pragmatism. It was the gates of Ford’s River Rouge plant, not the gates of heaven, that it had stormed successfully. Clear and simple objectives—higher wages, vacations, medical insurance, protection against layoffs—rarely inspire heavenly visions.

Such limited objectives succeeded, for they made the average man’s life better—at least until the left opted for “life style politics” over mundane bread-and-butter issues. A touch-feelie smog enveloped the American left at the same time that conservatives—from Bill Buckley’s National Review cold-war warriors to William Kristol’s educated servants of power—threw their energies into questioning the direction in which American culture and society seemed headed. For the past three decades, conservatives have been working at formulating a coherent philosophy and a consistent world view. The right has pushed its agenda with a vigor that commands respect, even as the focus of the left has grown soft and hazy. In its effort to be all things to all men, liberalism began to shrivel into Pogo’s enemy, “Us!”

*   *   *   *

Despite the power and money conservatives possess, the failure to articulate a vision of what America should be is what lies at the heart of the left’s demise. Beyond images of flowers growing from gun barrels and such nostrums as “Stop the Hate!” chalked on city sidewalks, do we on the left have a clear idea of the kind of society we want? It’s easy to dismiss Bill Bennett’s list of virtues with a well-aimed quip or two. Only if that were effective politics, Mort Sahl would be president and The New Yorker would be making money. An effective political agenda should offer more than a Chinese menu of possibilities. It’s not enough to choose the “Green Revolution” from Column A, a dash of flagellation from Column B, and the “life style choice of the day” from Column C. Taste and morality are not synonymous—and if the left is serious, it should question how we live and what we live for. And it should begin by distinguishing right from wrong.

The shrinking appeal of the left for America’s young can be seen in any number of ways. Few make me as uncomfortable as this: almost everyone I know who reads The Nation is close to the age of its new owner, Paul Newman. And he is now 70. Yet I know people in their twenties and thirties who read The National Review. That bothers me, even as I remind myself that personal observation is not proof. I don’t care that it’s not proof. It still makes this middle-aged homme de gauche very uncomfortable.

*   *   *   *

Let me admit to my increasingly ambiguous relationship to that liberalism the philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen liked to speak of as a flower in need of constant watering. I’m not altogether happy with a philosophy that now seems as much an itch that chafes as enlightened idealism. What right-wing talk show hosts claim we want has more truth to it than those of us on the left want to admit. Liberals are sanctimonious and often given over to an excessive weighing of all sides of all issues. We are frequently unwilling to take the blame for our failures or to face the actual lives of the underclass we defend, often unquestioningly. And our politics are less than realistic in the goals they demand and less than honest in the methods they sometimes employ.

Even well-watered flowers can smell of the fleshpots of Egypt as they decay. “Life-style” issues seem removed from the rational pragmatism of the left’s past in this country. Our childish petulance tones the claims we insist upon, even as our sense of what America is grows overbearing and our adherence to the examples of the past lacks conviction. Is it any wonder that I find myself reminded of the American left when I read Yeats’ famous line, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity?”

*   *   *   *

For me, politics are as personal as a kiss. And because it is mypolitics I am speaking of, I can admit to doubts about the future of liberalism. Like old love affairs, political positions sooner or later fuse with time. “This is no country for old men,” wrote Yeats, trying to purge himself of a mundane world and enter the realm of pure spirit. Age tempts all of us to measure the past as if it alone defined the soul’s hunger. Even those of us who deny the soul an existence want the comfort of ideas that possess staying power. In politics, again as in love, no loss is greater than winning — for victory destroys the anticipation of fulfillment.

Yet even personal confession must accept politics that exist not for eternity but for the moment. The truth is that I was never quite as radical as I pretended. The left may brag of how pragmatic it is, but how many of its demands even in the halcyon days of the late 60’s were mere variations on its age-old curse of absolutism? Time and again, it was the dictates of faith we were asked to accept, as if the heart could struggle against perceived reality. Yet there is pain even to what is observed. In the last analysis, political salvation is as personal as religious salvation. Like the churchgoing Irish grandmothers I remember from my childhood, I was ready to give body and soul for a peek at heaven’s gates.

*   *   *   *

Long before the ascension of Newt & Co., I already suspected that I was a political anomaly. Now I suspect I may be destined to remain a political anomaly forever. If a man’s politics could be given body, think of me as a large, ungainly creature, a big and powerful dray horse, uncertain of which way it can move. As I stand at the center of my own doubt, I paw the ground, afraid to roam the woods not because of what I may find there but because of what I may not find. Maybe it’s not as delicate an image as a flower in need of watering, but in a nation where the left seems willing to embrace any idiocy deemed politically correct, it’s root, grunt, and hold on for dear life for all of us political anomalies.

And who can deny that we on the left are a sorry lot at this time—battered, almost broken, unsure of our cause, forced to question our deepest convictions? We can’t even seek refuge from our bleak prospects by claiming to be alien to this America. Built upon the same Enlightenment ideals which gave impetus to the spread of liberalism, American political reality was never abstract. The nation’s principles anchored its politics and the Founding Fathers created a government in which the majority of citizens could live with dignity. Why, then, has the political philosophy which was largely responsible for the nation’s success been rejected over the past 15 years? Do we simply cast blame, apportion guilt, and pack our tents? Do we snarl at a nation indifferent to our pain? Or is it possible for liberalism again to be a humane and rational way for Americans to live together?

We can continue doing what we have been doing—blame our troubles on Bill Clinton, alternately accusing him of being too moderate and then decrying his lack of moderation. We can fire away at Newt and Bob, express our outrage that they don’t play fair. Only it isn’t Newt and Bob who are viewed as bankrupt by Americans. Nor is it necessarily Bill Clinton, although by now he leaves us scratching like dogs in a flea circus. It’s we who today constitute Pogo’s Us. Our vision is what is at issue in an America where the left no longer seems to possess a sense of how things are that is intelligible to others. No matter how irritating a leader he is, that is not Bill Clinton’s fault. He has been as liberal as we could have hoped. And it has cost him more than we are willing to admit. The conservative claim that Clinton is an example of liberal type-casting is not far from the truth. As for Gingrich and Dole, fair play has never been what Americans were interested in demanding from their politicians.

*   *   *   *

Barring the catastrophe of a massive economic depression—which is not what any of us should want—hope for liberalism’s future is tenuous. Having lost our sense of where Arthur Schlesinger’s vital center is, we defend not a vision of America but the difficulties facing a battered left. Yet even if the times are as difficult for the rest of the nation as they are for us, should we be expected to take comfort from that? The 1994 election may yet prove to be as radical a revolution as Newt claims. Whether or not that proves to be the case, its immediate eifect has been to let loose a strangely vengeful spirit of meanness in the land. The attack upon liberalism may be deserved. The attack upon America isn’t.

I have heard any number of explanations for why this nation has given itself over to meanness at what should be a triumphant moment in its history. But none explain to my satisfaction why the right has succeeded in making meanness the spiritual signature of a country known throughout its history for generosity. Even the left now finds meanness attractive, as if this nation were undergoing a weird purgation ritual, a leeching not of blood but of the sources of national compassion. Reading the morning papers, I feel as if I were watching Triumph of the Will. Only the Horst Wessel Lied is now coming from my throat. I don’t mean that America is going fascist. But a constriction of collective empathy and a growing lack of compassion are what one finds throughout America today.

Maybe it is simply difficult to live with meanness without becoming mean oneself. But that is enough to make me feel politically homeless in a nation where the compartmentalization of debate into sound bites chips away at the possibilities of politics, until we are left only with gestures, images, and labels. Discourse about the issues facing America strikes me as similar to a children’s book I used to read to my sons. “Where did you go?” “Out.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.” Even the questions make little sense.

It may be that we are living through one of those acrimonious times when America folds into its darker instincts. Like turn-of-the-century imperialism, self-righteousness is a more important factor in the life of the nation than we want to admit. Self-righteousness leads to meanness, and meanness seems to be our new scourge. But it is not the only enemy America faces. A nation that prides itself on a toughness endowed by 19th-century myth and modified by 20th-century hype knows about paradox. That conservatives should be caught up in what used to be the left’s penchant for whining is revealing. Their sense of victimization now tingles through every part of the body politic. How else explain their constant whimpering about “the liberal left media?” On airways under siege by Rush and Bob Grant and G. Gordon Liddy, the threat of imminent apocalypse sounds like a chorus of cicadas. Let us stand at Armageddon and battle McNeil/Lehrer! Is that the vision of Robinson Jeflers’ “perishing republic” that shines through conservative nightmares? Like “foreigners” who haunted the Indiana Klan in the 1920’s, “the liberal left media” haunts the feverish imagination of the right.

*   *   *   *

When I retired from teaching a few years back, I began to listen to those talk shows, an experience for which reading Locke and Jefferson and Hobbes had not prepared me. Hosted by men who batter the air with eruptions of bile as predictable as acne on the face of troubled adolescence, the shows fascinate one, both by what they say and by their successful seizure of the airways. Rush Limbaugh, the best known conservative talk show host, is a national figure, his face and opinions as well known in the land as the golden arches of MacDonald’s. From book and magazine covers, from the giant billboard on Times Square, he smiles at us. A face not dour but with the rounded look of a man luxuriating in openness and lack of guile. Even on the cover of a magazine for cigar lovers, Rush beams, as if to ask, “How can you dislike a man who looks at a cigar with beatific anticipation and takes such immense pleasure in his own success?”

Lewis Lapham, a sharp observer of this nation’s affairs, recently dismissed Limbaugh’s “feckless clowning.” Gerald Early, another close observer, compared him to the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, as “figure(s) the media can use to give a sellable face and voice to a unique temper among a group of people.” Early sees him as frozen in “intense sentimentality,” like the Religious Right (with which Limbaugh is probably less comfortable than he pretends). A man on a mission, as eager to spread “the truth” as the evangelist Billy Graham, Limbaugh is a voice of reason. But like so many others convinced of their dispassionate rationality, he proselytizes. With “talent temporarily on loan from God,” he yearns for an America cut from the stuff of old John Wayne movies. With little variation in his message, his yearning for that America seems to be the source of the devotion he inspires in listeners. He demonizes opponents of the conservative movement, but not with the absurdities that make Farrakhan seem like a Coney Island barker urging us inside the House of Horrors. As Farrakhan does with Jews, Limbaugh attacks liberals with obiter dicta issued with little thought to accuracy or consequence.

Yet what Limbaugh says is genuinely felt by a growing audience, and the focus of Limbaugh listeners seems more on their paranoia than on his “feckless clowning.” There is a reason why Limbaugh has emerged as America’s most important political commentator. He is not just another conservative huckster, but a presence trusted by millions so eager to assent to his views that they call themselves “dittoheads.” What passes for discussion on his program (callers are screened) reminds me of the clusters of winos one passes in Manhattan. Arguing metaphysics and drunkenly huddled together, those ragged men bob and weave like boxers, crippling the air with a rage of agony made coherent by emotions parading as ideas.

But Rush’s dittoheads do not talk to themselves. They insist on their right to be heard, and I find myself listening with surprising sympathy. Dittoheads can assume political positions like pigeons lined up on a street lamp. In this time of conservative triumph, they embrace the plot mentality of history with a rhetoric tempered by conspiracy theories, if not actual conspiracies. Peppered with their rage and anger at “the left-wing media,” at Bill and Hillary, Rush responds with his politics of reasonable vengeance. As it must have seemed in Caligula’s Rome, crises are everywhere, perceived by those who know nothing better than the appeal of the betrayals they have suffered at the hands of government.

* *   *   *

Yet even as they choke on conspiracy, we cannot dismiss what the voices say. Paranoia fascinates because it is so close to reality. As Delmore Schwartz said to the Vassar undergraduate, “Even paranoids sometimes have enemies.” Dittoheads rage against Clinton’s peccadilloes (real or imagined, the president’s sexual straying is an obsession of Rush’s legions) with an anger built upon judgment honed by suspicion. Trapped in their webs of conspiracy, dittoheads are confrontational in their politics, staking out their positions with proper nouns: “Bill,” “Gennifer,” “Hillary.” God is sought in the devil’s magic, while names define reality’s threat.

* *   *   *

To listen to Limbaugh lead his dittoheads through their political catechism is to understand why the American left is moribund today. Neither as philosophy nor as program is the left able to afford the luxury of life-style abstractions. And here is Rush, given the chance to flail away at “femiNazis” and at that scoundrel from Arkansas who uses and then casts aside the lovely “Gennifer.” No absurdity beyond our defense, we should not be surprised when he swings and connects. Even a five-year-old knows that he who leads with his chin should get belted.

A common thread running through the left’s past success in America was its eagerness to take on bread-and-butter issues. Unlike Marxists and religious fundamentalists, most liberals are uncomfortable with bedrock beliefs. Liberalism functions best when it functions with skepticism even of its own aims. Look at its American models: Jefferson, Paine, Jackson—men it carved in marble because they melded belief in the rights of individuals with belief in government as an instrument of equity. For liberals, individual rights exist within the community, and the relationship of individual to society embodies the larger relationship of the one to the many. If we are ever to resurrect liberalism, we must get back to that. And not by imposing artificial heroism on Americans. The common man has already received too much fanfare, and the blast of trumpets has made him no more heroic than he is. We need not to flatter his virtue but to remind him that the function of government is to better the lives of citizens. Even Carl Sandburg’s “the people” never responded with anything as mindless as “Megadittoes, Rush.”

* * * *

Ordinary citizens seek salvation not in reliquaries but in words. Neither his philosophy nor his love affairs are as intriguing as Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the nation. It’s not Jefferson but Jeffersonianism that maintains its hold on us by the way he urged his countrymen to accept no claim to rule as more legitimate than their own. That was the essence of Jefferson’s liberalism. Yet in today’s atmosphere, the left is content to struggle with such “issues” as whether or not he slept with Sally Hemmings. Why should we bother with the burden of ideas when life-style politics offers a more intriguing and gossipy vital center?

And Tom and Sally gossip is great fun—just as it is fun to wink knowingly at Bill and Gennifer stories rather than to work at solutions to the problems facing the country. Bedroom farce is as popular today as it was in the 18th century, and it will always be more popular than the painful choices facing American cities or a health care crisis that has begun to resemble Aztec ritual sacrifice. Given the emptiness of what passes for thought on the left, life-style politics is transformed into Life Styles of the Rich and Famous. So fascinated are we by our suppurating wounds that we avoid asking how the wounds can be healed. Or if they can be healed at all. The breakdown in optimism produces a pessimism of trivia, as right and left assent to the shrinkage of expectation. Some wounds never heal. And it is easier to understand suffering which assumes Calvinist inevitability.

* * * *

As I write, the Senate of the United States is deciding whether to continue a filibuster begun by a man who once tried to make money backing a pornographic film. Senator Phil Graham wants to become president and he is worried about the morality of the nominee for the post of surgeon-general, one Dr. Henry Foster, who has not only performed abortions but has also devised programs to reduce teenage pregnancy. I am not totally without sympathy for Senator Graham, even if, in a politically sanctimonious time, he strikes one as a man capable of giving lessons in the art of verbal ooze to us all. Like some others on the left, I am less comfortable with abortion as a “right” than I used to be. At this point, I would be willing to adapt Nancy Reagan’s “Just say No” anti-drug campaign to a campaign aimed at teen pregnancy. I don’t care how simplistic it is. Failure would at least allow us to take solace in profits to be made from future viewers of senatorial porn.

But memory, a witness as personal as it is embarrassing, sends me back to a bright October morning in 1979. Ten o’clock and I am driving to the college at which I teach when the traffic light on 126th Street turns red. Worried about being late for an appointment with a student who wants me to tell him whether his work is good enough to allow him to contemplate a career as a writer, I watch four black girls cross in front of my car, laughing and joking the way teenagers cutting school laugh and joke. The oldest looks 15, the youngest 12. Each is visibly pregnant in a city whose newspapers are not yet filled with stories about “children having children.”

“Nothing extenuate,” demands the great Moor before he kills himself. In 1979, Daniel Patrick Moynihan is being called a “racist” in magazines I write for because he has offended the sensibilities of the left by his writings about the black family. The evidence of breakdown walks before me in the Harlem I drive through. Rut it is Moynihan, rather than children having children, upon whom a New York homme de gauche is expected to focus in 1979. The question of the day is not what to do about teenage pregnancy but whether or not Moynihan is a “racist.” I wait for the light to change and for these four girls to move into the enchanted future. And I think of what I can tell the would-be Hemingway awaiting me.

*  *  *  *

No politician has attacked the philosophical underpinnings of liberalism more vigorously than Newt Gingrich has. And no politician seems to speak of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as often as the Speaker does. Maybe he sees himself as FDR’s successor in his fantasies. At least that is among the suspicions I have of the Speaker, and it makes him, along with his penchant for space cadet futurism and “a computer in every ghetto child’s hands” rhetoric, one of the more interesting conservative politicians. Gingrich’s affinity for FDR seems natural, but he does not share Roosevelt’s patrician concern for the down and out. Yet he does seem to hunger after something other than an imitation of Roosevelt’s style. He is moved by his sense of the man—and not merely by FDR’s patrician ability to maneuver press and public. As a politician, he may view New Deal programs as anathema. But as a historian, he admires Roosevelt’s use of power. Like FDR, Gingrich, too, has felt the pain of living on the edge. Or so I suspect.

Admittedly, this is a guess. But when the Speaker lectures a group of black journalists and insists that, despite obstacles, blacks make a place for themselves in his America, what he says is attractive—even to a bruised and battered homme de gauche like me. Gingrich exudes a sense of being one politician who believes in what he says, and that is something all Americans want to think about those who govern them. It is certainly what I want to think, for I have grown weary of the racial permutations and grinding intellectual cowardice with which we deal with race in America. There was a time when the left dreamed of a society in which pigmentation meant nothing. Now we mock that dream like good old boys on a run of sophistication. The “race-neutral” society is “naive” and “paternalistic” and “impossible” Yet it teases memory, like a poster I remember plastered across the dingy windows of an interracial labor organization on 125th Street. Two hands, black and white, clasped above the words, “Unite and Fight!” Newt is a strange ally to call on in support of such memories, but I’m as tired as he is of the immutable stain of race.

Of course, it’s nonsense to think that America’s problems can be cured by the Speaker’s free market entrepreneurial fervor or by Rush’s raptures over that notable beacon of black free enterprise, Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns. Yet where race is concerned, right and left lock in a curious embrace in the America of the 1990’s. Louis Farrakhan goes into the security business and sends black guards to beat up black children and “protect” a black-owned shopping mall. God’s in his heaven, and the cash flow is His own free market dictate.

* * * *

Like most liberals, I confess to feeling politically punched out, filled with doubt about policies I once supported. The idea of welfare as a “right,” which I once accepted without question, now seems to me an illusion skirting the edge of catastrophe. I don’t want to add my body to the ranks of all those conservatives jumping on the poor and defenseless. Yet if welfare was never guilty of the sins it is daily accused of by the likes of Rush and Bob Grant, it is still demeaning. That is the nature of welfare. It is personal and it is not theoretical and only when a Dwight Eisenhower decides that the socialist government of Sweden is responsible for that country’s high suicide rate is it humorous. Bergman’s films danced before our eyes, and there was Ike berating the dour Swedes for taking their own lives. As silly as that is, the days of welfare as a “right” in America are numbered. Yet even Ike might wonder whether what Newt & Co replace it with can work any better.

For conservatives are correct in this: to be a beggar for the charity of the state is a specific form of humiliation. I didn’t call it that when I experienced it. But I still felt like a beggar in those quiet alleys of the mind where personal terror waits like Polonius in the arras. Some memories should be kept buried. Only where the rhetoric of greed and pomposity is accepted as virtue, one recalls moments of need when the taste of bile was on the tongue, and where one’s secret cry, “Help me! I need!” lingers like some still-burning strobe light in the mind.

* * * *

From August, 1944, to August, 1946, I was a patient in a hospital built by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he was still governor of New York. Tax dollars were spent in the aptly named New York State Reconstruction Home, where I was taught how to make hands and arms do the work of legs and feet. It was in that hospital that the war between the politics of the heart and the politics of the head grew fierce. The winner would decide whether I was to return to the city as a person with a future or as permanent victim. It was not then fashionable, certainly not on the left, to assume that all victims were equally deserving. But America was too close to the traumas of the Great Depression and the Second World War to assume that the victim was somehow responsible for his own fate.

Like children everywhere, I hated being a victim—both of the polio virus that had taken my legs and of the idea of victimhood itself. Ready to do anything to escape that fate, I was determined not to sing the victim’s song. This is not a time in my life I can speak of lightly—not even today. About talent or its lack, one can be modest. But about survival, one must be truthful. Even at 62, the loss of my legs still anchors my pride and structures my life. And it still violates my sense of personal injustice. My time in the Home taught me that rehabilitation was not a gift from God but a harsh reality to be ripped from will and anger and hatred of the prospects before one. I could never recover the use of dead legs, but I could build a life of my own. That was the lesson I learned. And with rage, anger, fantasy, and more luck than I care to admit to, I rehabilitated myself.

My chief stroke of luck, however, was that I had been born in the most liberal city in the country, in a state and nation still responsive to that New Deal ethos now hated by the Speaker and Rush. Survival demands not humility but rage strong enough to project one’s anger against the world. And survival is not rehabilitation, which my American Heritage Dictionary defines as restoring “to useful life through education and therapy.” Without rehabilitation, there can be no long-term survival. My success should actually please Newt and Rush and those dittoheads worried about being taken for all they are worth by the government. For my life is not what the Speaker had in mind when he spoke of The Americans With Disabilities Act as “one of the compassionate excesses of the Bush years.” (I am not the only animal in the woods with a penchant for the oxymoron). Survival can dictate only whether or not one is tough enough to come through.

Unfortunately for the Speaker, toughness is only a small part of survival. The thing is a skill—and like most skills, learned through dull, repetitive lessons. I had to be shown how to use those prostheses that would propel me into the brave new world of the crippled. I had to be taught how to “face the future with courage,” as someone is sure to say at the next Republican Party convention. I had to learn how to make a living so that I would ultimately be able to afford to pay for braces and crutches and custom-made shoes. In order to acquire those skills that would enable me to pay survival’s bill, I had to get an education. Not only would I need to be taught how to mount the steps of a city bus and how to slide my body into a car seat and how to jump a curb on a crutch-walker’s swing-through gait and how to fall without fear, I also had to learn the most difficult lesson of all—how to pay my way. I spent two full years in that hospital FDR built. Like a “welfare queen,” I fed at the public trough—until I had been made strong enough to feed myself.

*    *    *    *

In truth, mine wasn’t a very deep trough—two years of rehabilitation and care in the Home, twice-weekly visits to a hospital in Harlem after my discharge (which is when I spotted that interracial testimony to the power of labor), and a teacher the Board of Education sent to my apartment for three hours a week to teach me math and English and science so that I could pass the Regents exams and enter a tuition-free municipal college in 1951. The gist of liberal New York’s liberalism: out-patient rehabilitation and an education. Not exactly what Red Barber had in mind when he spoke of some ballplayer “eating high up on the hog.” But enough to feel grateful for, since it was in that “free” municipal college that I learned enough to embark on a career as a teacher, a path similar to Newt’s own.

Yet just as the Orwell I admire envisioned a future as a country vicar, so I play with the idea that, had the virus never struck, I might have been invited to one of those conservative think tanks that have sprung up throughout the nation like warts on a frog: The prospect tickles my egalitarian bones, where the God of Pat Robertson and the God of Norman Podhoretz both play strange combinations. Only it’s precisely in such fantasies that I split with the Speaker and Rush and the dittoheads. That is where they lose me. Had Horatio Alger sold himself cheaply, he would have been guilty of selling himself unrealistically. The most profound lesson of my rehabilitation is one I offer to them: No one can make it on his own in this America. If the Speaker wants to pretend that hard work and determination are sufficient, he is lying—to himself, to Rush, and to all those angry dittoheads. Each of us needs a helping hand—the Speaker, Rush, the dittoheads, the woman who begs in front of the D’Agostino’s on Twenty-Third Street—and me.

That helping hand won’t come from Pat Robertson. Or from CitiCorp. Or from General Motors. Neither religion nor capitalism can afford to serve all losers in a nation so in love with winners that it rewards them out of all proportion. Read The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg if you don’t believe me. The illusion of self-worth is heady stuff, which is why politics always comes back to the heart. And that means that, however irritably and apologetically, I will remain an homme de gauche. I may wince at the rhetoric of liberalism, even as I may cringe at the cowardice of the fat and comfortable intent on others lifting themselves up by their bootstraps. Yet if I reject their idea of self-worth as an illusion, I have also chosen to hold fast to my own will and determination. They are never enough, not in New York and not in Hadleyburg. But they are sometimes all one has to work with.

Of course, I’m still vain enough to pretend that I “conquered” polio on my own. Like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Sylvester Stallone, I love tough rhetoric. In the depths of my battered liberal heart, I watch defiance turn to shame and self-reliance turn to self-righteousness. The singularity of determination and will are not only lies but the worst of lies—political lies. I need what the dittoheads scorn—government that cares. I suspect the Speaker has similar needs. A man so caught up by FDR must have secret debts. Newt is not the kind to believe his own rhetoric. Maybe the confession of a man who once actually heard himself say, “I beat the odds. Why can’t they?” would help him. I’m ashamed of having said that. I’ll be ashamed of it to my dying day. But I said it nonetheless.

So no matter with how much Emersonian zeal I throw my broken body against the world, let me make absolutely clear, particularly to those whose distrust of government our talk show hosts are so eager to fuel, that without a beneficent caring government, I wouldn’t have made it. Will and determination and all, I would be just another burnt log on failure’s fire. Those whose lives are devastated by disease or poverty do not need the prayers of Pat Robertson or the inspirational sermons of the fat and comfortable. Nor do they need the example of “role models.” (Rush’s black entrepreneurial friend was certainly right about that.) What they need is what I needed— the knowledge that their obligation to make something out of their broken fives would be matched by a country that accepted its obligation to give them the chance to make toughness count.

Like the Speaker, I was fascinated by FDR. Harry Truman now seems the better president and Dwight Eisenhower the better man. But it was Roosevelt who gave me my chance by convincing America that anyone deserves a shot at living with dignity. Toughness endures as example. Rich enough to choose to spend his post-polio life sitting on his ass in his beloved Hyde Park, he went back into politics and built a hospital where I learned how to help myself.

If I live long enough, I’ll need help again. Aging does that to all of us. And where will I find it? My prose is better than Newt’s (I gave up phrases like “sex kitten” at the age of 15), but Rupert Murdoch isn’t going to peel me a million for marshmallow raunchiness or even for platitudinous paeans to the free market. If I am capable of giving Newt and Rush lessons in self-sufficiency, I am dubious about my right to feed at the public trough. I am even more dubious about the cost of that feeding. Like most liberals, I distrust the moralists in our midst, those who tell me to beg from God rather than from the state. Yet I can’t get the memory of those girls out of my head. Swollen bellies to the wind, smiles to the sun—the children of those children are now our future.

I’ve given up on Emerson’s dream, determined never again to live with the illusion of self-reliance, never again to pretend that all a man needs is toughness. Irritated at welfare queens driving Caddies or hustling food stamps, I shall never again pretend that toughness and will can change the world. Let the Speaker and Rush and the dittoheads believe that if they can. I choose to remember that it’s as much my dollar on which those welfare queens are riding as it is theirs. Not that I don’t want my money back. I want it back as much as I want back the money Bob Dole keeps giving to Archer-Daniels-Midland. Welfare queens irritate me, but Archer-Daniels-Midland leaves me feeling as fleeced as the last man to buy the Brooklyn Bridge. When I’m robbed and told to be grateful, I have a problem.

It’s a different America, this country of Newt and Rush and the dittoheads—mean enough so that I wonder how those who knew it in the past might view it. What would Bryan say of an agrarian poor crucified not on crosses of gold but on subsidies for agri-business? What would Jefferson think of his yeoman citizenry in 1996? How would Robert Penn Warren look at a South overrun with golfers and real estate operators and transvestite bars a few miles down the road from military bases? Would John Steinbeck admit that the streak of mean tarring the descendants of Okies with racism is as true an aspect of “the people” as their generosity? Or that, when it’s feeding time at the zoo, every American’s snout willingly gets down in the slop?

Yet mean or not, it’s my country. If I empathize with those demanding work and responsibility, I don’t need the likes of Rush and Newt to tell me that America is out of whack because it is too liberal. Even those of us still on that liberal left know that it’s no longer possible to keep from looking at what we don’t want to see. Yet if our failures must be held up to the mirror of conservative radio ridicule, then let our virtues be allowed to claim their due. Liberalism made America better as a country by teaching it that compassion is perception. However misdirected, compassion remains the one meaningful response we can offer to those in need. Even if meanness is now an irreversible constriction of the nation’s heart, growing narrower by the minute, compassion offers a better prospect for survival than what is happening in America today. Maybe no nation ever taxed itself into prosperity, as the free marketers never get tired of telling us. But does that mean that as it moves into the 21st century, America will find salvation in those tired old myths of self-reliance? Unfortunately, the party of the Speaker and Rush and the dittoheads has always had a penchant for illusion. Just as “the liberal left” has been soft on those welfare queens, so the conservative right has never been able to rid itself of its weakness for song and dance men. Reagan, George Murphy, and now Sonny Bono—all of them rocking the nation to the old soft shoe routines. “If you wish upon a star.” Better watch out, Newt! It just may be that Rush and the dittoheads and that would-be Texas king of soft porn are waiting for you, too.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading