The real Republicans seem to have gone into limbo, and the GOP as I once knew it appears to be slowly evaporating. Even as a liberal, I find it cause for concern; we need a vibrant political dialogue and a balanced two-party system in Minnesota. Indeed, our nation was historically built and stabilized by the two-party system.
So, who are “real” Republicans? And what was the GOP as I knew it? My best description is likely those fine, intelligent, progressive men and women who populated that party in our state for decades, if not a century. But I know of no better way to describe a “real” Minnesota Republican than to note Elmer L. Andersen. Though only a one-term governor, he was the epitome of a responsible, intelligent gentleman who would make a person proud to be associated with his party.
A very brief bio of his life tells us much about the man, but an event later in his life reflects immense implications for the Republican Party of today. Andersen’s parents died when he was quite young, and he essentially supported himself with various jobs, one of which brought him to Minneapolis. Here he enrolled at the University of Minnesota to (as he said), “… get a degree for reasons of job protection. I did not want somebody to push ahead of me because he had a degree and I did not. Another object was to meet a woman whom I might marry. I was beginning to long for a home life and a family.” He accomplished all his objectives.
After graduating in 1931, he shortly thereafter went to work at H.B. Fuller in St. Paul, and in 1941 bought controlling interest in the small adhesive manufacturer. Today Fuller has sales of $1.2 billion annually, and employs more than 3,000 people.
Four priorities, in a definite order
Andersen was the quintessential capitalist, as a good Republican should be — with a few important added qualities. Under his leadership, the firm became an early model of corporate responsibility, recognized for offering generous benefits to employees, their spouses, and retirees. Andersen’s corporate philosophy was built around four priorities in a definite order. The highest priority was service to the customer. “Anything the customer wanted should be seen as an opportunity for us to provide it. Number two was that the company should exist deliberately for the benefit of the people associated in it. I never liked the word employee. It intimated a difference in class within a plant. We always used the word associate.”
Fuller’s third priority was to make money. “To survive, you have to make money. To grow, you need money. To conduct research and develop new products, you must have money. The need for money can be desperate at times. But corporations must put the quest for money in its proper place. Our philosophy did not leave out service to the larger community. We put it in fourth place, behind service to customers, our associates, and the bottom line. Community service cannot be paramount to a business, but it ought not to be omitted, as it too often is. Business must concern itself with the larger society — for reasons of self-interest if nothing else” (emphasis mine).
A progressive Republican, Elmer served in the Minnesota Legislature from 1949 until 1958, and as governor in 1960-62. Among the many causes he championed were educational programs for exceptional children, recognition of alcoholism as a health problem, the Metropolitan Planning Commission in the Twin Cities, and the Fair Employment Practices Act (Minnesota was the fifth state to pass legislation around this issue); and the Fair Housing Act as governor. He later became a U of M Regent, and is called the “Father of Voyageurs National Park.” But it was his actions after he left office that his views should give pause to the disappearing Republicans of today.
‘If that’s a dirty word, so be it’
Andersen remained in the Republican Party for the rest of his life, but he became unhappy about how conservative the party had become. Even in the 1960s, his views of moderation were known. In a 2003 interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press he said, “I remind people I want to be known as a liberal Republican. If that’s a dirty word, so be it.” In 2004, he broke with party ranks to endorse John Kerry in his bid to unseat George W. Bush as president of the United States.
He was so disenchanted with the Bush administration that he wrote a commentary in the Star Tribune claiming that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney “spew outright untruths with evangelistic fervor” and calling Cheney an evil man who was the real decision-maker in the administration. Andersen had both guts and integrity, a condition pathetically lacking in the GOP today.
Some would say Andersen was not the real Republican, and he in a sense left the party. If that be true, then the real Republicans in 2009 are Michele Bachmann, or Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly in the media; maybe John Boehner or Mitch McConnell in the Congress; and most certainly Tim Pawlenty here at home. There is no denying it — they are the voices we hear from conservatives now. The only voices. Indeed, virtually the entire party is in a race to the right. Even Sen. John McCain, a respected war hero and dedicated public servant, had to pick Sarah Palin to join in the flight to the right.
A tempering voice
That is why it is sad to see the Elmer Andersens of the world out of today’s political picture — there are no voices in our state to temper the shrillness of tone, the reactionary positions, and even the bizarre and out-of-the-box allegations we hear from the GOP as it has now been captured by the right-wing ideologues. In the current cadre of Republican gubernatorial candidates, each of them to a man and woman, are eagerly courting the far-right elements of their party. It is equally sad because it ends a long line of fine progressive Republican leaders of our state — a situation that began its demise with the election of Tim Pawlenty.
It is also sad because there is a terrible void in the conservative movement here, and nationally, because there is no Elmer Andersen to be a voice of reason and moderation for the party. Finally, it is sad because our state and nation are the lesser for not having positive, contributing, strong, rational conservative voices on the scene. And you’re hearing that from an unrepentant liberal.
Myles Spicer of Minnetonka has spent his business career as a professional writer and owned several successful ad agencies over the past 45 years.