When I was a teenager, my grandfather ate dinner with my family and repaid us with a post-dessert homily. His favorite was “the Red menace,” where he raised his voice to warn us about the perils of Communism – “Watch out for those people… they will say and do anything to win.” Fifty years later Grandpa’s words apply to the leaders of the Republican Party
Watching Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner respond to President Obama’s speech on the debt crisis, I remembered Grandpa Harry’s warning. A cousin of President Eisenhower, my grandfather was a lifelong Republican, as was everyone else we knew in fifties-era Orange County California. He was a “moderate” Republican – a term that’s almost vanished from the contemporary political lexicon. He didn’t have much use for Democrats – he reviled FDR – and worshiped Richard Nixon. Grandpa had a simple idea of government: leave people alone; balance the budget; and spend whatever it takes to defeat Communism. He didn’t mind paying more taxes to strengthen our military.
My father and grandfather owned several small businesses and I grew up working in their stores. Grandpa Harry believed that people like them, hard-working middle class folks, were the lifeblood of the United States. And he taught a series of bourgeoisie maxims: “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” “Life is like a grindstone; whether it wears you down or polishes you up depends upon what you are made of.” And so forth.
Above all, Grandpa Harry believed in what Robert Reich once called the myth of the “Triumphant Individual… the familiar tale of the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor.” He and my father had lived this myth and, while not achieving wealth and fame, had comfortable lives and were valued members of the community.
Grandpa had developed a set of ethics that drove his after-dinner homilies. Some were about service to the community; he believed that those who had been fortunate had a responsibility to care for the less fortunate. (Grandpa had a moderate Republican notion of “the common good.”) He valued schools and encouraged his grandchildren to work hard in school and go on to a good university. He believed in “the level playing field” and the notion that in a fair system, “cream rises to the top.”
Periodically, my grandfather would deliver his own homespun keys to success: Have a plan. Work hard. Learn from your mistakes; don’t quit. Keep your commitments. And tell the truth – “your word is your bond.”
Grandpa Harry didn’t regard Communism as an economic system but rather a political order ruled by ruthless despots who didn’t tell the truth. “You can’t trust the Reds,” he’d repeat over and over. “For them, the ends justify the means. They will say and do anything to win.”
He never reconciled his steadfast commitment to the truth with his equally emphatic support for Richard Nixon. Fortunately, my grandfather died before Nixon resigned the presidency and admitted to lying.
Nonetheless, if he were alive today, Grandpa Harry would be horrified by the behavior of contemporary Republican leaders – today’s “Reds” – who believe the ends justify the means. Dwight Eisenhower’s cousin would have been appalled by Speaker Boehner’s response to the debt crisis. Writing in the CAMPAIGN FOR AMERICA’S FUTURERobert Borosage has aptly chronicled the lies in this speech. Boehner repeated standard Republican talking points: First, that the debt crisis was precipitated by a Democratic spending spree on Obama’s watch – it began in the George W. Bush era with ill-considered tax cuts for millionaires and unfunded wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, that Obama hasn’t presented a plan and wants a “blank check” – the President has presented Republicans with several plans they have rejected, the latest being Senate Majority Leader Reid’s proposal for 2.7 Trillion in 10 years. Third, Obama hasn’t been accommodating, he “can’t take yes for an answer” -- the President has gone more than halfway to reach an agreement and, with the Reid plan, essentially offers Republicans what they initially wanted but now reject Finally, Speaker Boehner claimed to have a “bi partisan” solution – at this writing he doesn’t have a bill and the one he has is only supported by Republicans.
Grandpa Harry came from an era where truth-telling was extolled as a virtue and it was expected that everyone – even politicians – had honor. For his generation, there was a clear difference between Communists and Americans – they believed they ends justify the means and we didn’t; they believed it was okay to say and do anything to win and we didn’t.
A lot has changed in the fifty years since I sat at the dining room table and listened to Grandpa Harry’s homilies. In that era, the enemies of the United States were the communists living in Russia and China. In this era, the enemies of the US are Republicans living all around us – they’re the people Grandpa warned me about.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org