New York Times columnist Paul Krugman argued last month ("The Resentment Strategy") that the "R" in Republican stands for "resentment . . . the Republican Party, now more than ever, is firmly in the hands of the angry right, which has always been much bigger, much more influential and much angrier than its counterpart on the other side."
Really? Surely there's plenty of resentment to go around in every political grouping. Krugman, though, indicted the GOP for purportedly embracing "the pure politics of resentment; you're supposed to vote Republican to stick it to an elite that thinks it's better than you. Or to put it another way, the GOP is still the party of Nixon."
Krugman then time-machined us back to Nixonland: That's the title of a new book by Rick Perlstein, who argues that Richard Nixon's political career grew out of resentment against members of the social elite who looked down on him. But Perlstein, unlike Krugman, spots such resentment on the left as well as on the right: "By the end of the 1960s, Nixonland came to encompass the entire political culture of the United States."
That's an exaggeration, but it does bring us to the dramatic center of Perlstein's book: the year 1970, when students resentful of a murky "establishment" burned down ROTC buildings on many campuses, and hundreds of colleges shut down for several weeks to facilitate protests. In turn, resentful New York construction workers beat up demonstrators they saw as ingrates. When one protest escalated at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen shot to death four young people.
It was hard to read Perlstein's accounts of 1970 without memories beginning to swirl in my head. That year 5,000 students at Northwestern University voted to secede from the United States, and I, then at Yale, was intellectually seceding as well. In May 500,000 students descended on Washington to wade in the Reflecting Pool and listen to anti-war speeches from pediatrician Dr. Spock, witless Shirley MacLaine, and braless Jane Fonda-and I was one of those 500,000.
Lots of subscribers who read my memories of 1968 and 1969 in our Aug. 9 issue asked me to continue the story, so here goes-and I will return to columnist Krugman's resentment after I describe my own.
Resentment of what? For a student a scholarship to Yale should be like a ticket to the Garden of Eden. Classy libraries and living conditions. Classy professors insinuating that students will learn so much about good and evil that "you shall be as gods." Part of my resentment was about class, as I mentioned in August, the resentment of a kid from a relatively poor and "unimportant" family background confronting affluence and status, wanting all that but not wanting it. That poisonous plant needed fertilizer to grow.
The fertilizer came in the pages of The New York Times and The New Yorker, the newspaper and weekly magazine I read religiously. I read them at first because they conformed to the Adlai Stevenson liberalism I had absorbed from my father. But their constantly stated support for the poor conflicted in my mind with their ads for the affluent, and after a time I started sneering at the combination.
The fertilizer came in my classes, where professors evenhandedly laid out two sets of solutions to the problems of America, liberal and radical-and liberalism increasingly seemed flaccid to me. But a lot of fertilizer came from the encouragement of radicalism-without-consequences in 1970. In a way, life was play: We could take stands and engage in activities that in other eras might be resumé-killers, but in 1970 garnered applause.
Take just one month of that year, merry May. On the first weekend about 10,000 radicals came to New Haven in support of the Black Panthers, whose leader was on trial for murder in the courthouse just off campus: Serious business, but Yippee leader Abbie Hoffman had great fun leading chants involving barnyard epithets. When the National Guard responded to rock-throwing with tear gas that swirled through the night air, we ran through the streets, mouths covered with handkerchiefs, as poet Alan Ginsburg sat sedately chanting "Aum." More fun, we thought-for the Kent State shootings were still to come.
The following weekend was the massive demonstration in Washington. I wasn't one of the early morning protesters at the Lincoln Memorial with whom Richard Nixon chatted, nor did I run into Attorney General John Mitchell who also mingled with the crowd-but a former Yale Daily News editor who had become a presidential assistant gave my revolutionary roommates and me an evening tour of the White House. Security was much less then than now, and we had come to expect open invitations to the halls of power.
The Monday after Wading-in-the-Reflecting-Pool weekend was Walking-Through-the-Capitol day. The idea was that Ivy League college students, the best and the brightest, would buttonhole their senators and representatives and convince them to oppose the Vietnam War. My roommates and I walked the corridors and at 5:30, on a lark, stopped at the office of Speaker of the House John McCormack.
I knew a little about McCormack, who was 78 and for 42 years had been a House member from a Boston district several miles away from where I had grown up. He was one of 12 children, only three of whom made it to adulthood; his father died when he was 13, so he quit school, worked as an errand boy for a law firm, skipped the high-school diploma but attended law school at night, and passed the state bar exam at age 21. Then came politics. He became the House majority leader in 1940 and sat in the front row holding a cigar. He became Speaker in 1962.
I knew his father had been a construction worker and his grandfather an immigrant from Ireland during the potato famine, so I told McCormack's secretary that I was Olasky from Boston and wanted to discuss the relation of the Irish revolution against the British to the Vietnamese revolution against the French and the Americans. She told him that and, astoundingly, returned to show us into the inner office.
McCormack-tall, rail-thin, silver-haired-looked like a cadaver with a twinkle in his eye as he listened to my roommates and me. He then explained to us the big difference between the Irish desire for freedom and the Communist Vietnamese desire to set up a totalitarian regime. We didn't buy it, of course, but he was courteous throughout and it was hard for us not to be. After half an hour he said he had enjoyed the conversation but it was time for him to have dinner with his wife, which he said he never missed doing.
But before he left, he said he wanted to show us something special. He took us into the House chamber, pointed to his large speaker's chair, and said each of us could sit in it. We did, swiveling it around: revolutionaries enjoying being grandchildren. McCormack smiled and waved goodbye. We spun around a few more times under the eye of an aide, then walked out and laughed about what a reactionary fellow McCormack was. But, although we wouldn't tell each other this, I think we were all wistful.
(I later found out that McCormack was telling the truth about dinners with his wife, Harriet; they had been married for 50 years and it was said they never spent a night apart. She became ill later that year and had a lengthy hospital stay; he spent every night in an adjacent room until she died in 1971. McCormack retired the following month and went home to Boston. He died in 1980. By then I was sorry to hear of it.)
We returned to New Haven. With classes and final exams called off to allow us to have fun protesting, we headed out a couple of days later to northeast Philadelphia, at the behest of ultra-liberal New York Congressman Allard Lowenstein, to spend five days campaigning for an anti-war candidate in the Democratic senatorial primary there: "Reese for Peace."
My political mentor for those days was a 60-something Philadelphian who said he had fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the group (largely Communist) of Americans who fought in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. He showed me where to go door-to-door chirping "Reese for Peace," where to distribute fliers ("Reese for Peace"), and where to be a last-minute advocate as primary voters meandered to the polls on primary day.
That day was memorable not only because the Reese candidacy (rest in peace) lost badly, but because incumbent Congressman Joshua Eilberg kicked me. Throughout the day the local political machine's ward heeler, Abe, had approached voters to remind them how he had fixed their parking tickets or gotten the truant officer to back off when their kids skipped school. As Abe offered his reminders, I shadowed him: "public sidewalk," I insisted.
Late in the afternoon, when Eilberg hopped out of his limo and asked Abe how things were going, I was by his side. Abe said all was fine except for "this punk from Yale." Eilberg said, "Get out of here, kid," and I responded with my "public sidewalk" line. Eilberg pivoted and kicked: Not very hard, but this was proof that the dark night of fascism was descending in America-or so a couple of "Reese for Peace" proponents protested as the dark night of political defeat descended on our short-lived campaign.
(Eilberg in 1978 lost his bid for a seventh term after a grand jury indicted him for bribe-taking. When he eventually pleaded guilty to conflicts of interest, a judge sentenced him to five years in prison. Eilberg died in 2004.)
And at the end of May I joined the liberal Boston Globe as a political feature-writing intern. Dear reader, you might infer from my history so far that my discernment was not great, but the Globe throughout the summer assigned me to go into a suburban Boston community, spend a day talking to people about a complicated issue, and write an article that was probably filled with gross misunderstandings but was nevertheless correctly progressive.
I'm astounded now to think that the Globe would print my article without even checking to see if I had gotten the facts right-but at the time, I took it for granted. I was the prodigal son who, instead of ending up coveting pig's food, received pats on the back. And yet, the more unmerited favor I received from the left-tilted powers that be, the more resentful I felt. I knew, deep down, that something was not right.
Paul Krugman asks whether Republicans will be able to "ride Nixonian resentment into an upset election victory in what should be an overwhelmingly Democratic year." Sounds to me like the New York Times columnist is a little resentful of the American voters who just might, once again, yank away the White House from its rightful Democratic owners.
After writing columns for 25 years I know the columnist's sense of play. Writing columns is like doing crossword puzzles: The game, instead of filling in horizontal and vertical boxes, is to start with a blank piece of paper and use 650 or 725 words to create a flowing argument. It's a lot easier than actually having to govern and make decisions with irrevocable consequences-but when those who govern don't do what you think they should, it's easy to grow resentful.
When I was young, and before I was a Christian, all of life was that way. Despite my semi-deprived background, opportunities for Yale students seemed endless and consequences seemed invisible. But with applause so frequent, shouldn't the next step be for everyone to follow my lead? And if they did not, had I not the right to be angry?
My resentment arose not from having too little but having too much, yet having it without the love, joy, peace, and patience that are the fruits of the Spirit, as Paul wrote to the Galatians. Does some resentment in American politics today arise from the same lack? And is Krugman wrong in seeing the splinter in the eye of conservatives but not reading the front page of his own newspaper every day?
Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.