Wednesday, October 27, 2004


Who Are These People Calling Themselves Republicans?

My family is drenched with Republicans. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, cousins. My father was a high-level Gerald Ford appointee and had friends in both the Reagan and the Nixon White Houses. My grandfather, a millionaire investment banker, was a longtime GOP supporter and contributor. So was his father. Both sides of my family were wealthy by the 19th century. On both sides, I can trace numerous ancestors who came to America before the Revolutionary War; in fact, I’m directly descended from Mayflower pilgrims in not one but two lines. We don't like to claim this now, but Richard Nixon was a distant cousin. I think it's a safe guess that there were Republicans in my family pretty much as soon as there were Republicans at all.

So I'm puzzled. Just who, I wonder, are these people in Washington calling themselves Republicans?

They don't look familiar to me.

To begin with, I was always taught that Republicans were socially responsible. I have an early memory of visiting my grandparents in the 1970s during the energy crisis. I was up late (defined for most of my life as any time after 10pm) watching their giant American-made color TV, the kind that drew electricity from the wall even when it wasn't turned on. When my grandfather stopped in the doorway to say goodnight, he asked me to please unplug the TV when I was finished watching it.

I'm afraid I laughed. "Why?" I asked. The man had two large homes, belonged to four exclusive clubs, and employed a cook and several maids. Why would he care about a few cents worth of electricity?

"The governor of this state has asked every household to cut its electricty consumption by ten percent," he answered, icily. "This household has cut its electricty consumption by twenty-five percent." This is the way it always was; civic responsibility always had a very high priority, and good Republicans went above and beyond.

The "Republicans" in Washington now act like they don't know the meaning of the term responsibility.

If you're forgive my snobbery, the Republicans I knew were, well, smart. The upper-class ones were well educated, and the grass-roots kind had a hard-nosed common sense, the kind it took to run a farm or a store. Both kinds worked hard, and were decent, upright, and polite. Neither kind would mind their kids attending Sunday School together. We were the ones with both feet on the ground--Democrats were the ones with their heads in the clouds. Global warming doesn't exist? The war in Iraq isn't encouraging resistance? Alienating our allies won't end up hurting us? Current Republicans doon't seem to know how to put two and two together without getting three or five.

Honesty--a very scrupulous, uncompromising honesty--was not merely a priority, it was a given. A family friend, blameless of wrongdoing, went to jail for six months rather than betray a confidence. (He had given his word). Demagoguery was most decidedly for Democrats: "Republican" and "Rush" were not words that would have gone together, back in the day.

I was taught that the GOP was the party of fiscal responsibility. The gold standard, a balanced budget, the dubious constitutionality of the 16th Amendment, all that. A Democratic president balancing the Federal budget and a Republican presiding over a swing of $700 billion back into deficit spending? In three years?!? Unthinkable. That's the kind of performance we Republicans had to be vigilant about lest some Democrat sink to it. "Tax and spend"--always applied to Democrats—implied a clear alternative: tax just enough and don't spend any more than you absolutely must. It certainly didn’t mean: don't tax enough while throwing money around like a bank robber on vacation.

Republicans understood principles. We knew why there was separation between church and state, and how this protected religion. We were capable of grasping why it's a bad idea to torture prisoners of war--because everyone’s sons fought in our wars (my uncle came within an inch of a sniper’s bullet in Korea, as the hole in his helmet attested). And remember the "War on Hunger"? That was, to us, typical Democratic thinking. Hunger is a mere condition. Republicans would no more declare a war on "hunger" than they would declare a war on...well, "terror." We wouldn't have needed snipers in the suburbs of Washington DC to not-so-gently remind us that terror, too, is merely a condition.

It was Republicans who always said "you can't legislate morality." Of course, we were also led to infer, through a silence stoney with disapproval, that homosexuals were promiscuous and would never want to partner monogamously. And we had a libertarian streak. Amend the Constitution specifically to limit Americans' rights? You can perish that thought.

Rightly or wrongly, I was taught that America didn't start wars, it finished them. We entered our wars reluctantly, late, and only when there was no alternative. It was Kennedy and Johnson--Democrats, natch--who got us into Viet Nam. Now it's the Republicans who are getting us into pointless wars with no endgame in sight.

As far as the quintessential spoiled rich kid riding Daddy's influence to the presidency, that was JFK. Republicans from Abe to Ike were farm boys. Now, spoiled ex-alcoholic rich kid George Bush is probably the most pampered and privileged president in history.

In short, I have no idea who these people in power now think they are, or what in the world they're up to. But if they're going to keep calling themselves "Republicans," then I think they should start behaving like Republicans.

Either that, or think of a new name.

© 2004 The Quotidian Meander
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