The Party Of Lincoln

Notes: Written on Veteran's Day, 1995. That's 11/11 for you heathens.
by Hart Williams (c) 1996

I used to be a Republican. Indeed, I was bred to it through generations of Nebraska railroadmen, still proud that WE had won the Civil War against the hateful institution of Slavery. No: WE were Republicans going back to the Civil War -- or at least that was the impression I was given.

I still remember quite vividly my mother and father leaving me, at age 5, at the home of friends in Cheyenne, Wyoming, so that they could go to vote in the 1960 Presidential election. I was vaguely aware that Wyoming Democrats had given John Kennedy his nomination, and that it was a matter of some small pride to such a small state. (Recently, in 1959, with the addition of Alaska to the Union, we had moved from our traditional population rank -- 48 of 48 and then 49 of 49 -- to the unaccustomed overcrowding of being 49th of 50. I note, with some satisfaction, that Alaska has since overtaken us, and Wyoming is, again, 50th of 50 in population.)

My parents, needless to say, voted for Nixon, and we were disappointed in the results -- as was half of the nation, in the closest election in history to that time. I do recall that I was schooled from an equally early age in Jeffersonian decency. With regard to Kennedy, I remember saying -- at age 6 -- "We don't like him, do we?" And my mother told me something for which I never cease to bless her: "No, he is OUR President, and, now that the election is fairly won, it is our duty to support our President. If he fails, we all fail."

I do not use her exact words, but the impression is burnt into my six-year-old soul. And so, when Kennedy returned to Wyoming in the fall of 1963 (to repay, as I was to understand later, that debt to Wyoming) I sat in the field house of the University of Wyoming, and tried, I mean really TRIED to support our President. I must confess that, in his Massachusetts accent, Kennedy kept referring to the "greaht naturahhhhl resoooooces of Wah-ooooooh-min," and to "soderash," which I thought, throughout the speech, was something that babies got when you didn't change their diapers often enough. OH GOD! I thought, OUR President is an idiot!

But I applauded, anyway.

"Soderash" turned out to mean "soda ash," or, "potassium," which, father explained, explodes on contact with water in its pure state.

Good thing I clapped: JFK was assassinated three weeks later, in Dallas. (Parenthetical: where was I when it happened? I was sitting in a tree at Whiting Elementary in Laramie, and I should have known that I was going to be a journalist, even then. Girls were crying. "The President's dead!" they wailed. I went to where the Principal was sitting by the front door -it was after lunch but before they let us back in the building -- and asked what she had heard on the radio. "He's been shot," the Principal said. "But they've taken him to the hospital. He's still alive, they say." Thence, Tommy and I -- and the poor kid who'd created his entire second grade persona from his Revell model of PT 109, and having memorized the movie -- wandered the schoolyard giving out the facts, to quell the rumors sweeping the playground. We heard the news over the intercom after we'd gone back to the classroom. It was eerie. They'd let us out of school only three weeks earlier to see him. Now, he was dead.)

Now, when Johnson ran against Goldwater in 1964 (when Goldwater was right-wing, and not now that he's too left-wing for the Party) I coveted the grand, saucer-sized Goldwater/Miller button, to counterbalance the snotty girls' Johnson/Humphrey buttons -- third-grade girls always seeming snotty to third grade boys. In my heart, I knew that Goldwater was right, and I suppose that I still do. Helluva guy, that Goldwater. So, again, the disappointment when Goldwater was not only trounced, but failed to even take Wyoming! Oh, God. (NB: In 1981, I DID procure my Goldwater button. I am nothing if not patient.)

Then, in junior high school, I joined 'TARS,' which was what the recruiting poster said at Laramie Junior High. It meant, of course, "Teen Age Republicans," and not, as it would later come to mean, "The Nixon Youth" (cf. "Hitler Youth" -- scary people).

I still remember my astonishment that my Kansas grandmother had voted for (dear God!) Lyndon Johnson! Determined to end that sort of thing, I was a young TARS page at the Wyoming State Republican Convention in 1968. Nelson Rockefeller's people were there, as were John Lindsay's (albeit not very interestedly), as were Ronald Reagan's, as were Richard Nixon's. I ended up with a box of carefully collected buttons and bumper stickers -- NIXON'S THE ONE, et al.), which ended up in someone's parents' back seat and vanished without a trace. (I still miss my "Romney" button.) I was learning my first lessons in "Republican Values." Yeah: Rip off a little kid. Thanks. ("Gee! Nobody saw it. Are you SURE you put it there?")

I vividly recall the look of the convention, but not the issues. DOC SAVAGE #26, DEATH IN SILVER, was rack-jobbed in the hotel's gift shop, and all the delegates were wearing Styrofoam straw hats, which seemed odd to me, quite far removed from the "Party of Lincoln" -- or the 20th Century, for that matter.

My piano teacher was there -- one of the blue-haired ladies who always ran Republican party politics in Wyoming (remember: we were the first place to give women the vote, and the women of Wyoming had jealously guarded their place in Wyoming party politics ever after). I remember that she was disappointed in my enthusiasm for Wyoming's congressional challenger, a "Kennedyesque" fellow from Casper named John Wold, who was trying to get the nomination away from Wyoming's sole (Republican) Congressman, William Henry Harrison (I think), who had been in congress since the Grant Administration--or so it seemed.

SHE: "Do you know how much seniority we'd be giving away? Wyoming is a SMALL state." And, of course, she was probably right. But I was in Junior High School, and looking like Kennedy would be a political staple for another generation. What did I know? WE were the Party of Lincoln in the Equality State.

And so, I suffered with Nixon -- as did we all.

Visits to Grandpa's breakfast table were political discussions that lasted into the wee hours, beneath his Nebraska Union Pacific wall map (the one later unceremoniously tossed in the trash by my Uncle). I sometimes think I heard every major bill that was introduced in Congress in the 1960s discussed there at one time or another. Grandpa didn't like FDR (as certain Republicans don't now) and I managed to pick up that Republican sense of loss, of quixotic idealism going back to Hoover. How WE felt about Woodrow Wilson is a matter of some conjecture. Grandfather, by-the-by, bore more than a passing resemblance to Harry S. Truman in his later years, and he did not consider the comparison flattering. Understandably, given Grandpa's politics.

They were GOOD political discussions. They were about whether this or that would work, or such and so. They were not slanders, and they were not mindless. They were highly principled AND highly partisan, however. I remember Grandpa telling me that he was going to accept his Medicare, which I questioned him about, knowing his opposition to it. (He was still against Social Security, for that matter!) "Well," he said, displaying a fine sense of fair-mindedness (if not entirely absent of self-interest), "I was against it, but I'd be a fool not to take it now that it's passed."

With the end of the 1960s, so, too my Grandfather, who taught me to read and listen to the opposition, because I'd learn things from them that I wouldn't from just reading people who agreed with me. We were the Party of Lincoln. I need not fear the corruption of my beliefs.

Hey, we were REPUBLICANS! We might not have been successful nationally, but we Republicans controlled Nebraska and Kansas, and Wyoming.

As I said, I was bred to it.

Republicans did not, however, control New Mexico, and that was where I was in 1972. (I mark my life, even today, by Presidential elections.) And so, I was in the Land of the DREADED Enemy, the Democrat. The Slaveholder. The Apostate.

WHY they were dreaded is not germane here. What is germane is that my parents went into the New Mexico Primary in 1972 and helped to vote Pete McCloskey his sole delegate to the '72 Republican Coronation (sic) in Miami Beach. Our Republicanism had always been maverick and pragmatic. ("Pragmatism" is now considered a dirty word, I note, in Republican circles.) My parents felt that McCloskey had issues to bring up at the convention that we Republicans had a right to discuss and debate.

The New Mexico Republican party felt differently, however, and the railroad ran to an entire delegation of Nixon partisans, committed to the Eleventh Commandment ("Thou Shalt Not Criticize A Fellow Republican"), and willing to, AS A BODY, cast the hateful vote for McCloskey, but unwilling to grant McCloskey any parliamentary inroad to the convention.

This seemed very UN-Republican, but we just figured that it was a local aberration. We were STILL the Party of Lincoln, after all.

Well, history proved my family, if not right, at least correct in a wariness towards Nixon. I remember feeling a strange sense of weirdness at the self-destruct mode the McGovern campaign moved into during the general election. And, though you might imagine that Watergate soured me on Republicanism, such was not the case.

Defending Ford's pardon was not a happy thing for me, nor was the strange period of interregnum that descended upon the country after Watergate. (Though I'd still defend the pardon on the same terms.) I graduated from high school and went to college without a national government. There was a lynching going on in Washington D.C. Massachusetts bumpers sported stickers with a flag, self-rightously screaming: "DON'T BLAME ME: I'M FROM MASSACHUSETTS!" which, of course, referred to Massachusett's lonely position as the sole state that voted for McGovern.

Trust me: you don't WANT to know what it was like to be a Republican in those years. I learned to keep quiet.

The next Presidential election found me in Southern California, voting for Gerald Ford, which would have created the United Western States of America, except for Hawaii. I remember the eerie look of the electoral map that night, as the ENTIRE WEST went for Ford. Weird.

But I was still a registered Republican, and had worked the phone banks that night at a local real estate office on Wilshire Boulevard, getting out the vote. Hey, I'd done MY part. We delivered OUR state.

When people say they are a Democrat or a Republican, you should see whether they have bothered to vote, and, more importantly, whether they had enough strength in their convictions (and there were several Republican ones in those post-Watergate days) to have volunteered their time to help the party in an election.

... BECAUSE I was raised to understand that, ultimately, there is NO Republican or Democratic Party. WE are them. They is us. And those who do the work are those who have a disproportionate impact on who gets elected. Money DOES NOT -- contrary to cynical opinion -- buy a single vote. It might help, but be you Captain of Industry or homeless person, your vote carries the same weight.

I remained a registered Republican because my vote was worth at least twice that of my Democratic friends during the California primaries. There were only half as many Republicans as Democrats. And, increasingly, as the party moved far from my moderate roots (towards the Twilight Zone, actually) I found myself exceedingly pleased to vote AGAINST some of the right-wing-wackos in California's surreal party politics.

Ed Davis, the ex-police chief of LA (Darryl Gates was his hand-picked successor, as he had been Tom Reddin's hand-picked successor), decided to run for Governor against Jerry Brown. Well, we beat him by voting for Eville Younger in the primary. The ex-Attorney General went, thereafter, down in flames in the general election, losing to Brown, with MY vote going to Spacey Jerry as well. But Ed Davis might well have won. Whew!

I found myself, increasingly, voting for sanity in the primaries (or against INsanity) and accepting a straight Democratic ticket in the general elections as the lesser of (great) evils. I was still a Republican, but increasingly voting Democratic.

That former New Dealer Ronald Reagan ultimately drove me from my party (or, more precisely, drove the party from me). I remember the 1980 Convention, as Reagan partisans zealously killed pro-choice and equal rights planks in the party platform, leaving the moderate-to-liberal wing of the party to twist slowly in the wind. When you think of Republican Women, please remember Betty Ford and not Nancy Reagan. It didn't used to be a sin to be pro-choice, or pro-ERA, as a Republican.

I voted for Reagan (I'm embarrassed to say) the FIRST time.

And it was the first and last truly cynical vote I have ever cast. I am not proud of it, but I think it is instructive to see WHY I voted for the bastard. (I REMEMBERED Ronnie from 1964 and 1968, and I must confess that I came from a faction of the party that never really LIKED or trusted the S.O.B. My parents forgot, in subsequent years, their objections to Reagan, but I remember them well. (Ronnie managed to get my father detached from the Forest Service after more than two decades -- there are many ex-Engineers retired in Santa Fe who went through a similar experience, circa 1983 -- and they GAVE that bastard mucho money in the 1984 election, never realizing WHO had destroyed Dad's career.)

But, having been political losers over their entire lives, I suppose their euphoria over ANY Republican can be excused. Still, I remember them voting for Dave Hitchcock in Laramie, even though Dave was a DEMOCRAT (!!), because he was a friend. We were PRAGMATISTS, remember, and that leads to the segue ....

I voted for Reagan because I wanted to see the hemorrhaging of the Presidency cease. It had begun with Johnson. It took a severe hit with Nixon, and Ford was portrayed (unfairly, I always thought) as a buffoon. Carter had only increased the precipitous slide of the prestige of the office into that of National Whipping Boy, and I COULD still remember the dignity of that office in the days of Eisenhower and Kennedy. I remembered Lincoln.

I thought that if Reagan could, at least, ACT the role, reinject some dignity and oratory back into the political process. (Ever notice that most politicians nowadays are boooooooooooooring speakers, somewhat less gifted in rhetoric than your average fire hydrant?) I had not doubts whatsoever that the overwhelmingly Democratic congress would act as a check on the excesses of any Reagan Presidency, as would Reagan check the excesses of the Left.

It was a pragmatic, if cynical, vote. Reagan was NOT Lincoln.

And I remember when I heard Ronnie in 1984 asking: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" And I thought: Gee, I'm living on the streets, barely surviving, hardly alive, no car, barely employed. So, I did something that I have never done before or since: rather than vote for Mondale (eeeeeeeeeegh!), I ABSTAINED. I voted Libertarian. Pragmatist to the end, I figured that THEIR party could use my miniscule percentage to stay on the ballot in future elections.

Needless to say, David P. Bergland (whoever HE was) didn't win. Ronnie did. I VOTED: I could not bring myself to abrogate my duty as a citizen entirely. But I didn't LIKE it.

And, as I watched in horror as Reagan made an unholy alliance with fringe elements and groups that we'd have thrown out of the Republican party of MY youth, I ceased to recognize us. Not because Wyoming Republicans were intolerant: because the fringies were, and the party I grew up in would (often) rather be right than elected, and "right" in the classic sense. Principled. Decent. Ethical. Intolerance was NOT a Republican principle. We left THAT for Southern Democrats, Boll Weevils, Dixiecrats, what-have-you.

WE were civil. WE were the Party of Lincoln.

And, in 1988, I watched Pat Robertson (a theocratic, unimaginable, RELIGIOUS candidate) speak as a bona fide candidate at the Republican Convention, as the newspersons interviewed Jerry Falwell (another "religious" zealot, preaching a hateful politics from the pulpit) who was wearing a DELEGATE'S CREDENTIALS! And listened as Republicans began to hate. I said to myself: "I have not left the Republican Party. It has left ME."

The NEXT day, I went to the county clerk's office and changed my registration to "Democrat."

And I have not looked back since. When I returned to New Mexico in 1989, I was happy to help the hated Democratic Governor of my youth, Bruce King, to be re-elected as the beloved Democratic Governor of my adulthood. I do not belong to any organized party, anymore (to paraphrase Will Rogers): I am a Democrat. And proud of it.

But I do remember the Republican Party of my youth. And sometimes I wonder what became of it. Rush Limbaugh is closer to George Wallace than to Barry Goldwater. No one has yet spotted the Grand Old Party, but this modern party which bears its name bears no other, significant resemblance to that "Party of Lincoln" that I was reared in.

No, these are the men and women who stood in front of a schoolhouse in Little Rock, Arkansas, long ago. And that's a pity. Rest in peace, Father Abraham. They undo you in your name.


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