Tomgram: Ira Chernus, What the President-Elect Should Be Reading

December 11, 2008


On Sunday, I went to a memorial for Studs Terkel, that human dynamo, our nation’s greatest listener and talker, the one person I just couldn’t imagine dying. After all, the man wrote his classic oral history of death, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? at 90, and only then did he do his oral history of hope, Hope Dies Last. The celebration of his life went on for almost two and a half hours. Everyone on stage had a classic story about the guy, one better than the next, and Studs would have been thrilled that so many people talked at such length about him. But he wouldn’t have stayed. Half an hour into the event, he would have been out the door, across the street, and into the nearest bar, asking people about their lives. And the amazing thing is this: they would have been spilling their guts. He could make a stone talk — and not only that, but tell a story of stone-ness that no one had ever heard before or even imagined a stone might tell. His death is like an archive of what was best in America closing; his legacy lies in oral histories that will inform the generations.

Unfortunately, his remarkable oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, may prove all too hauntingly relevant to our moment. In fact, in the midst of the ceremonies, the radio host Laura Flanders pointed out that, in Studs’s beloved Chicago, a group of more than 200 workers from United Electrical union local 1110 were sitting in at their factory. After the Bank of America had cut the company off from operating credit, the execs of Republic Windows and Doors shut the plant for good on just three days notice without offering severance pay. The workers responded by demanding some justice and “blocking the removal of any assets from the plant” until they got their “rightful benefits.” Shades of the 1930s! As John Nichols of the Nation writes, “[They] are conducting the contemporary equivalent of the 1930s sit-down strikes that led to the rapid expansion of union recognition nationwide and empowered the Roosevelt administration to enact more equitable labor laws. And, just as in the thirties, they are objecting to policies that put banks ahead of workers; stickers worn by the UE sit-down strikers read: You got bailed out, we got sold out.'”

If this isn’t a message from and about a changing nation, I don’t know what is. And, by the way, the fact that the President-elect supported their demands at a news conference on Sunday indicates not just that change has indeed occurred, but that messages sent from the bottom en masse don’t go unnoticed by canny politicians at the top.

Until this second, who would have predicted such a thing? And who can imagine what version of hard times we will face? All I know is that, if Studs, who made it to 96, to the verge of the historic election of Barack Obama, were alive today, he would have recognized a moment of hope when he saw it and made a beeline for Republic Windows and Doors, tape recorder in hand. He was, after all, a man who knew that anyone can hope in good times, but that, in bad times, to feel hopeful you have to act, you have to take a step, even on an unknown path. And he was a man who also would have taken it for granted that the lives of the workers in that Chicago factory were at least as complex, deep, dark, surprising, fascinating, confusing, and remarkable as any among Washington’s elite or the movers and shakers (down) of Wall Street.

In one of Studs’s interviews, the chief of the trauma unit at a Chicago hospital, talking about how a doctor should deal with the family of a young person who has just died traumatically, says that, when he introduces himself, “they won’t even remember my name. Sit them down. Sit down with them. Look into their eyes. If you can, hold on to them and say, ‘it’s bad news.’ And they’ll say, ‘Is he dead?’ Or they just look at you. You have to use the word, you have to say it: ‘He’s dead.’ If you say he’s ‘expired,’ he’s ‘passed away,’ they don’t hear that It’s very important to put yourself into their shoes, but you’ve got to say the word ‘dead.’ You’ve got to give them the finality of it.”

Well, Studs is dead. And it’s hard times without him.

Ira Chernus, TomDispatch regular, who is now, appropriately enough, writing a book on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, gives some thought below to what those who want to act, to make change, in this hard-times moment can learn from the canniest of politicians — FDR and Barack Obama. Tom

The First Hundred Days or the Last Hundred Days?
Obama’s Rendezvous with Destiny — and Ours
By Ira Chernus

Looking back on Barack Obama’s first post-election interview with “60 Minutes,” no one should be surprised that he admitted he’s reading about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office. In fact, the president-elect — evidently taking no chances — is reportedly reading two books: Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope and Jean Edward Smith’s FDR. As he told “Sixty Minutes,” his administration will emulate FDR’s “willingness to try things and experiment If something doesn’t work, [we’re] gonna try something else until [we] find something that does.” That’s one reason Obama, like FDR, has claimed that he wants advisors who will offer him a wide variety of viewpoints.

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Tomgram: Heading for 2012

November 6, 2008

November 5, 2008
Tomgram: Heading for 2012

The Juggernaut

Obama and “the Elecular”

By Tom Engelhardt

The following email came in from my friend Wendy, very early Tuesday morning: “At 6:22, I am standing in a block long line on w. 65th. In 33 years I have never stood behind more than ten people for a prez election…”

Keep in mind that we’re talking about New York City, where the election result was never in doubt. At about the same time, at our neighborhood polling place, my wife found a more than hour-long line winding around the block, and my son, on his way to work, had a similar traffic-jam experience. For a friend downtown, it was two-and-a-half hours. Again, this wasn’t contested Ohio, it was New York City.

So don’t think I wasn’t excited — even thrilled, even filled with hope — when, at 11:30 that morning I hit my polling place and still found a sizeable, if swiftly moving, line of voters of every age, size, and color, and in the sunniest of moods. Normally, on voting day, I just waltz in. But it was a pleasure to wait and imagine. Even then I knew, as Jonathan Freedland wrote recently of Tom Friedman’s new book, that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” But believe me, that didn’t stop me from thinking about what the turnout might be like in states where it mattered, or what that might mean. And it didn’t stop me from remembering another moment, more than four years earlier.

It was the summer of 2004 and I was walking the floor of a packed Democratic Convention in Boston, interviewing dutiful delegates. They were intent on nominating John Kerry as the Party’s candidate because they were convinced he was the man who could “win.” Despite no less dutiful cheering as speakers rattled on, there was a low hum of conversation, a sense of distraction in the air — until, that is, a politician I had never heard of, a young man from Illinois named Barack Obama, was introduced as the keynote speaker.

All I can say is that I’ve never been in a crowd so electrified. It was visceral, as if the auditorium itself had suddenly come alive. I felt it as a pure shot of energy coursing through my body. Like others in that vast arena, I simply didn’t know what hit me. When it was over — and it took a long time for that surging din to ebb — when I could finally shout into a cell phone, I called my daughter, who, by an odd coincidence, was in the nosebleed section of the same arena with a camera crew. What I said to her (and then repeated to a friend in another call soon after) was: “I know this is going to sound ridiculous but I think I just heard a future president of the United States.” (And then, in my report from the convention, I actually wrote it down: “He was a knock-out. Call me starry-eyed, or simply punchy as a day inside the Fleet Center ended, but there’s always something about genuine enthusiasts that just does get to you. I thought to myself when Obama was finished and the place was truly rocking, maybe, just maybe, I listened to a speech by a future president of the United States.”)

Soon after, a friend commented that people had said the same thing of Julian Bond back in the 1960s. And I promptly forgot all about it until my daughter reminded me of it this spring.

Last night, that electric moment came to mind again — as a journey of unbelievable improbability reached its provisional, slightly miraculous endpoint. And, while the results poured in, I had another visit from the past. I remembered a day in 1950. I was six and my mother had taken me to one of those magnificent old movie palaces then still on Broadway in New York City to see a cowboy flick. At its climax, with the hero and villain locked in primordial struggle on a mountainside, the bad guy went over the cliff. As it happened, my father had mentioned this dramatic plot development the previous evening and so, as the villain dropped into the void, I yelled out into that darkened theater in sheer delight at being in the know, “My Dad told me it was going to happen this way!”

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