Upon entering his eighth decade in 2007, Joseph Epstein wrote an essay titled “Kid Turns 70,” in which he asserted that 70 was a funny age to turn. “Despite misgivings,” he wrote, “I have gone ahead and done it.” Last week, in spite of my own misgivings, I did too — and having done it, seem to have attained a certain sagehood in my neighborhood.
One fellow, who is a tad shy of 50, asked what it was like to be 70. I responded it was just fine, thank you, when considering the alternative. Amused, he pressed me. “Well, what have you learned in 70 years?”
I thought for a moment then said, “That there’s only one fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats.”
My two brothers and I were issues of a mixed marriage; our mother was a Republican and our father a Democrat. The respective parties seemed to suit our parents’ ethnicity, with Mom’s Scandinavian stoicism at home with the more reserved nature of Republicans, while Democrats’ proclivity toward the boisterous fit Dad’s Italian temperament.
A canceled vote in each election
The folks seldom argued politics, but Mother obdurately canceled Dad’s vote in nearly every election. Our mother simply felt in her heart that Republicans claimed the higher moral ground.
Dad was drawn to the Democratic Party through his long association with the Duluth teachers union — an organization he helped found, and where he served several terms as president. He was unrelenting in his efforts to secure benefits and safeguards for members. Even Mom — also a schoolteacher — admitted conditions improved for educators during Dad’s tenure, and she admired what he’d accomplished.
Yet she remained convinced that most other unions were run by thugs who encouraged featherbedding (a term unfamiliar to people under 50 today as union influence wanes).
All this goes by way of saying that during my adolescence and early adulthood I was more influenced by my mother, who maintained Republicans were persons of optimism, gentility and refinement, while Democrats — Dad excluded — were cynical, coarse and profane. She had been uncomfortable with President Harry S. Truman — who shared her Baptist affiliation — because he uttered barnyard vulgarisms she was certain never parted the lips of Republican gentlemen.
In those days, as a reserved and shy young man, I also aspired to culture and refinement. And I envisioned a career clad in Brooks Brothers habiliments, an executive with a country club membership.
An evolution over time
But the passing of time has seen the optimism of my 20-year-old self evolve into my father’s skepticism. And history has contributed to my take on matters political. Herbert Hoover’s seeming laissez-faire approach to the Great Depression was a hallmark of my father’s reluctance to entrust Republicans with elected office. He said the Hoover administration believed that if industrial and banking moguls had been left alone, they could have navigated the country’s emergence from the financial crisis. Herbert Hoover’s optimism, epitomized in the 1928 campaign slogan: “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” appeared constructed around the premise that an economy thrives when corporations and CEOs, free of government interference, are allowed to resolve issues.
It took World War II and firmer banking regulations during the Democratic presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to reverse the economic slide of the 1930s.
The last Republican president who didn’t share his party’s line of minimizing government intrusions into private enterprise was Theodore Roosevelt. He dissolved monopolies in 1908, but some re-emerged under Ronald Reagan, who famously said, “Government is not the solution to the problem. Government IS the problem.”
Lost jobs, houses, health insurance
Recent events seem to indicate otherwise. Under-regulated financial and insurance institutions have contributed to millions of Americans losing jobs or facing foreclosure, with 18 percent of our citizens under age 65 having no health insurance at all. According to a February 2009 report from the Congressional Budget Office, this number is expected to grow from its current 45 million uninsured to 54 million in the next 10 years. The bromidic Republican response hearkens to an unfettered marketplace producing salutary results.
So finally, as I have attained three score years and 10 (which, according to the Psalmist, is about all we can expect from these mortal coils), I have discerned the essential difference between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans believe if corporations and citizens are free of government interference they will naturally do the right thing. Democrats, on the other hand, know that they won’t.
Michael Fedo is the author of “The Lynchings in Duluth,” “The Man From Lake Wobegon” and other books.