Tuesday, September 14

What Ever Happened to Southern Democrats?

Now he's gone and done it! My friend, Ben House, has started bemoaning the loss of the South's old tradition: Democrats with both morals and sense:

I wish Zell Miller had not spoken at the Republican Convention. No, I am not one of those overly sensitive types concerned about his harsh rhetoric and strident tone. No, I am not agreeing with the media-pampered Sen. John McCain who feared that Miller trampled the patriotism of Sen. Kerry. No, I am not bothered that Zell and others came across as angry old white men, for two and maybe all three of those adjectives describe me.

I wish Zell Miller had not spoken at the Republican Convention because I wish he had spoken at the Democrat Convention. I miss the Democrat Party. When I became of age to understand politics, it was fading away and is now almost totally gone, and I still miss it.

Especially in its southern wing, Democrats used to include lots of great legislators and political leaders, some who rose to the stature of true statesmen. These men were the heirs of Jefferson's better side and John Calhoun's sounder wisdom. From the end of Reconstruction to the Vietnam War era, the South was a one-party region. Southern politicians mastered political skills to offset their minority status. Southern Democrats both made Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal successes possible and kept his excesses in line. After working with and supporting FDR for six years, they firmly balked at his dangerous court-packing plan. FDR promptly campaigned in Democrat primaries trying to purge his party of these old stalwarts. This coup backfired and the old-line Southern Democrats retained their political power.

The Agrarians, famous for their political and literary classic I'll Take My Stand, compiled a less well-known collection of essays titled Who Owns America? that they hoped would be adopted as the platform of the Democrat party. Although the party did not adopt the Agrarian agenda, the conservative, near libertarian, farm-family-community world-view of the Agrarians still dominated many Southern politicians.

I remember the heyday of Southern Democrats in the 1960s when they chaired almost every major committee in Congress. Their drawls, their white hair, and their political savvy became stereotypical, but by and large, they were political geniuses.

These old-time Southern Democrats were hawkish. Their grandfathers might have fought for the Confederacy, but these men wanted the Federal Army armed with the latest and best weapons possible. They did not cotton to Nazis, Communists, anarchists, agitators, or terrorists messin' with “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Sure, they wanted naval bases on their coastal ports and army installations in their home districts. But the primary motivation was for such was to defend American freedom and soil of the United States. The 9-11 attack would have raised their ire, and that not for a short season. The old boys would have sought vengeance against our enemies with in the spirit of Nathan Bedford Forrest. And for them, the role of the U.N. would be to follow and not lead.

This defense of the homeland extended to the local community as well. These Democrats thought gun control meant hitting what you aimed at. Sheriff and policemen were to be armed and dangerous-toward criminals and thugs. And lest the police could not make it in time, the local citizens were also armed against varmints of either two or four legged varieties. The South was both courteous and prone to defensive violence. “Law and order” was not a slogan, but a political reality in the old Democrat South.

Those fellows were fiscal conservatives as well. They knew well the benefits of pork barrel politics, but their Celtic blood put tight reins on federal spending. Being Southerners, they knew the difference between being lazy and being needy. They were also suspicious of American money being sent off to other countries. Foreign aid might be used to prop up friends or oppose enemies, but never was it to be given to ingrates.

These Southern Democrats were not marble men; they too had feet of clay. They might between speeches and filibusters gather privately in the anterooms of the Capital for fine cigars and strong bourbon, but public life still called for personal moral standards. They often did not respond quickly enough or adequately to racial tensions and problems, but their conservative gradualism would have avoided the social upheavals of the 1960s. It is hard to imagine the old time Southern Democrats caving in to roving packs of abortionists, feminists, teacher unions, or to gay marriage supporters. They still lived in the fear of God and of a Christian electorate.

Few of them are remembered today. Some of us remember Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, whose claim to fame was the Watergate Hearings. Ervin quoted Shakespeare in one breath and upheld strict construction of the Constitution with the next breath. Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi was highly respected by Republicans as well as Democrats, and he now has an aircraft carrier named after him. Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana, whose father and mother both were Senators, overcame his flamboyant father Huey's style and became a respected leader and ardent supporter of Republican President Nixon. Sam Rayburn of Texas, Speaker of the House, was a man of great honor in his day. Congressman Wright Patman, who served in the district I grew up in, is still highly respected in northeast Texas more than two decades after his death. Many other fine Southern Democrats served in the House and the Senate.

Democrats who were strong patriots, hawkish on defense, strict constructionists on the Constitution, fiscal conservatives on the budget, and defenders of traditional Christian standards were not just found in the legislative branch or in the Southern delegations. FDR's first Vice President, John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner of Texas was a feisty, outspoken conservative. FDR's successor, Harry S. Truman, a social liberal and a committed New Dealer, saw what FDR missed and stood firmly in opposition to Soviet expansion in the early days of the Cold War.

Even President Kennedy, no hero of mine, could issue warnings more belligerent than even the most conservative Republicans today. JFK warned the enemies of this nation that we would “bear any burden and oppose any foe” who threatened us. Where in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts could you find such today?

Former Democrat Vice President Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota was a bouncy liberal who championed the cause of Civil Rights. But Humphrey was a Cold Warrior and an optimist who never blamed America first. Even then Governor Ronald Reagan once told a friend of Humphrey's “Hubert would have made a good President.”

For years Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson labored in behalf of oppressed Soviet Jews. Jackson was a strong defense man who always supported America's mission against tyranny. For years, Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin built a reputation as a man of extreme integrity and honesty. Even Gov. George C. Wallace, with his well-documented flaws, motivated many Americans to stand up for their country against enemies abroad and moral decay at home. Both of 1972 Democratic candidate George McGovern's running mates-Sen. Thomas Eagleton and Sergeant Shriver-were committed Catholics who were pro-life. McGovern himself, very much a man of left wing viewpoints, had a war record as a bomber pilot in World War II that was truly heroic.

In recent years, Jeffersonian Democrats, Cold Warrior Democrats, pro-life Democrats, fiscal conservative Democrats have all gone the way of the dinosaurs. My parents and people of their generation still vote for the candidates who bear the name Democrat, but the old party is gone: It is as gone with the wind in the South as the rest of Scarlet O'Hara's world. Zell Miller represents the last of a breed, the last of a long and glorious tradition, but unfortunately he is retiring from the Senate.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a two-party system again? Wouldn't it be wonderful to actually have to weigh out the choice between a Republican candidate and a Democrat?

No comments: