Whangdoodling

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Too much comfort should not be taken from the comparison, for we live in different times. (Historical parallels are family resemblances, not identical twins.) An unwisely chosen President can do far more damage today than in the 184Os. The influence of cash in our present system is much greater. And while the strong parties of Harrison’s day created a large, if gullible, electorate, television seems to be shrinking ours. Big money controlling a small electorate and winning more power—that is a potential, troubling scenario for instability followed by oligarchy.

But in a sense, we are always in trouble once we open the doors of political participation to everyone—as any genuine conservative would remind us. Popular democracy is a high-risk enterprise. It’s as dangerous as Crockett’s bear hunts, especially if we let the politicians play Davy while we play bear.

The foregoing lines were composed before the 1988 election campaign was completed. Those that follow are in the nature of a postscript. On the morning of November 8, a number of columnists expressed the view that the campaign had set new lows in distortion and trivialization.

The veteran New York Times writer James Reston bid a grateful farewell to a “disappointing” campaign and headed his piece FREE AT LAST, FREE AT LAST . He used the word tricky to describe the Vice-President’s strategy, and he had evident sympathy for the “liberalism that ... led the fight against the Depression and the Nazis,” and which Dukakis had been slow and late in defending.

But Reston also has a good and objective memory. “Dukakis called up the ghost of Harry S. Truman’s victory 40 years ago,” he wrote, “but Harry ran one of the dirtiest campaigns of the century that year, comparing Thomas E. Dewey to Hitler and Mussolini. . . .”

I called Reston, who could not remember the precise date but amiably referred me to the files of the Times for the last phase of the campaign. Sure enough, there it was on the front page for October 26, 1948: PRESIDENT LIKENS DEWEY TO HITLER AS FASCISTS’ TOOL .

Except that it was the Times headline writer who had said it so explicitly. Truman had not—not quite. Speaking in Chicago, he had said this: “When a few men get control of the economy of a nation they find a ‘front man’ to run the country for them. Before Hitler came to power, control over the German economy had passed into the hands of a small group of rich manufacturers, bankers and landowners.

“These men decided that Germany had to have a tough, ruthless dictator who would play their game. . . .

‘Today, in the United States, there is a growing—and dangerous—concentration of immense economic power in the hands of just a few men. . . .

“Now, my friends, the record of the Eightieth Congress is a sad tale of the sell-out of the people’s interest to put more and more power into the hands of fewer and fewer men. . . .

“Such is the spirit behind government by Republicans [in Illinois]. . . . In that spirit, democracy can be destroyed, and tyranny can be born.”

No specific reference to Dewey, certainly, though the implication was clear enough. And readers would tend to remember the headline rather than the text. Meanwhile, Strom Thurmond, candidate of the States’ Rights, or Dixiecrat, party, was making his own contribution to the campaign’s record for negativism. The next day’s Times quoted him thus: “States’ rights are ‘the only guarantee we have that a kind of Kremlin will not be established in Washington.’” Norman Thomas, then in one of his bids to be elected on the Socialist ticket, had his doubts about the seriousness of all the major parties. “In proportion to the magnitude of the issues before the world,” he declared, “this is the worst campaign I’ve ever been in.”

In a sense, we are always in trouble once we open the doors of political participation to everyone.

It seems, after all, that smear and sleaze are (a) in the eye of the beholder and (b) part of the system—particularly when, as a realistic electoral matter, winning is the only thing. That does not justify dishonesty and shabbiness, but it suggests that we should look a little deeper into the record before making ultimate judgments and deciding on remedies.