Wednesday, November 5, 2008

On an historic win, political eloquence and Pinkerton thugs

Barack Obama’s victory represents the most dramatic ascent to the White House in this nation’s history. We’ve heard about humble births in "log cabins" before, but this is of a quite different order.

In that regard, Irish Americans know all about Al Smith’s failed bid for the White House, which was redeemed by Kennedy’s successful campaign 32 years later. (This morning Menachem Rosensaft made a similar case about RFK and Obama in the Huffington Post. Click here)

However, as someone said of the result in November 1960: it proved that any boy in America could grow up to be president –- as long as his daddy had $400 million.

JFK's was one of the great American success stories. He was, nevertheless, 3 generations from the emigrant ship. Obama's father, in contrast, was foreign born, and we have to go back to Andrew Jackson for the last first-generation American to be elected president.

Obama, of course, has been linked not just to JFK, but also Reagan, FDR and Lincoln, transformative presidents who’ve used eloquence as a weapon.

People who talked about all this being somehow empty talk simply missed the point on a number of levels and really didn’t much understand American history. Historians, when evaluating and ranking presidents, generally factor in their ability to communicate with the U.S. electorate and, in a couple of cases, people in the world beyond.

I’ve always liked Hillary Clinton and respected the real John McCain (the one we saw last night). But I was first intrigued by the promise of Obama’s candidacy about 18 months ago. It was only when I got the opportunity to go to New Hampshire for the last days of the primary there in early January that I heard first-hand the intellectual underpinnings of the call for change. I wrote an op-ed about that a couple of weeks later. Click here

I also saw a brilliant politician at work in the Granite State. Obama's stump speech in primaries spoke of the various obstacles Americans had overcome over the generations and how they didn’t give up when they faced, for instance, the “Pinkerton thugs,” a reference to the detective agency and all private police forces that beat down workers from the Molly Maguire era onwards. This was an instance of how his populism, in its pitch to the base, was so much more effective than John Edwards’s.

My maternal grandfather was jailed during a strike in Dublin many decades ago. Actually, he was the “thug” in this instance, as he was convicted of assaulting a strikebreaker passing a picket. He was released back into the world after a few weeks. But such things linger for a couple of generations. And so, Obama’s reference to workers’ struggles in the past (even though I’d guessed it wouldn’t reappear in an inauguration speech) helped close the deal for me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

AP poll shows massive conversion to evangelical Christianity

A poll released today by the Associated Press seems to indicate that the number of people identifying as evangelical Christians has almost doubled in four years. However, cynics have questioned the poll’s science because it also suggests that the presidential race between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain is tightening considerably –with the former having a 44 to 43 percent edge, which is well within the statistical margin of error, but rather different from the 10-point and more margins in Obama's favor indicated by most other surveys. The AP said that 43 percent of likely voters polled said they were evangelical Christians. The number of those who voted in 2004 who claimed that label was 23 percent, according to exit polls. The critics say that the close relationship between the AP’s owners and McCain might have something to do with this jump. Oh, surely not? Haven’t these people ever heard of the power of faith?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Irish to forefront of GOP revolt

When the Republican convention was still in the first flush of excitement over Sarah Palin, two veteran party supporters made their views known on a cable news show. Actually, they thought the show, or at least their participation in it, was finished.

“It’s over,” said Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan (the pair are pictured above back in the 1980s) said in the famous “hot mic” incident. What was “over” apparently was the election, because of John McCain’s tapping of Palin to be his running mate.

Agreeing with her was strategist Mike Murphy. The latter for good measure used words like “cynical” and “gimmicky” about the pick.

Well, Palin wowed the convention with her speech, touching off her short-lived honeymoon. Meanwhile, an embarrassed Noonan said her words were misconstrued. Since then, however, she has joined the chorus of criticism directed at the Alaska governor’s candidacy, saying it’s a “mark against John McCain, against his judgment and idealism.”

Let’s add to that the defection of Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist of the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004.

Dowd said on a Time Warner Summit panel that McCain “knows, in his gut, that he put somebody unqualified on the ballot. He knows that in his gut, and when this race is over that is something he will have to live with... He put somebody unqualified on that ballot and he put the country at risk. He knows that."

The strategist’s disillusionment with the Bush presidency and the Iraq war has been well publicized. And although he still works for Republican candidates, he did say back in April 2007 that Barack Obama was the only one of the declared candidates that he liked.

Obama, of course, has been remarkably successful in attracting Republicans. Among the most interesting are sisters-in-law Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter who spoke at the Democratic Convention, and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the younger daughter of Richard Nixon, who has donated $2,300 to the Obama campaign.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Remembering Danny Cassidy

I’m saddened to hear just now about the death of Danny Cassidy who wrote an Irish language column over the past year or so for the Echo. Danny, as it happened, was one of the main movers behind the Irish Writers and Artists for Obama, a group that nailed its colors to the mast with a full-page ad in the paper during the primary season.

I suppose I’ll always remember one thing about Danny – he defied the preconceptions I’d had about him before I met him.

Let me explain. I’d had no interaction with the scholar before he spoke that night with writer Peter Quinn at the Tenement Museum. Certain things I’d heard and read, though, suggested someone rather wacky and eccentric, and perhaps very cranky. This had nothing and yet everything to do with his thesis about the development of American slang.

Nothing in the sense that I was agnostic on the question, but enough people I respect thought his ideas very plausible and even convincing.

Everything in the sense that to push such a theory against the conventional wisdom one had to have been mildly eccentric at the very least -- as so many innovators and theorists have been.

Such a quality tends, however, to be accentuated in our electronic age. It turned out, indeed, that it was Danny’s emails that were a little wacky, or could be, not the man himself.

In person, I found him tremendously likeable and charming, as well as intelligent in an understated way. To my great regret, that first meeting was to be the last.

My own subsequent email correspondence with Danny only reinforced my new opinion – he was a great guy.

Danny, you’re gone too soon, way too soon.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Kooks enter the mainstream

There’s nothing quite as boring as morning-after coverage of a presidential debate that you’ve seen. So this morning I listened more intently to reports from the campaign trail, like the interesting one about Sarah Palin’s energizing the Republican base. (Note: The post has yesterday's date on it because the image was uploaded Tuesday night).

One woman interviewed at a rally yesterday in Florida said she was “excited about [Palin], but also scared.”

One thought perhaps that her enthusiasm for someone who others see as hopelessly out of her depth might be tempered with a dash of realism. Would Palin, for instance, be able to take on the onerous duties of the presidency at a moment’s notice?

Well, that's not quite what the woman meant. It was the Democratic candidate that troubled her sleep. “He scares the bejesus out of me,” she said frankly.

That’s the least of it. In recent days reporters have heard and television crews have recorded riled-up voters at Republican campaign events shout “terrorist,” “kill him” and “treason.”

It was Samuel Johnson who said patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. It’s also, he might have added, the last recourse for the desperate. As Barack Obama builds a lead in the polls in the campaign’s final weeks, the xenophobic and racially-coded rhetoric from the other side has gotten increasingly dangerous.

There was a time when questioning a major-party candidate’s patriotism and commitment to the constitution was beyond the pale. But recent days have seen a barrage of attacks against Obama by the top and bottom halves of the GOP ticket that do precisely that.

Undoubtedly one factor at work here is the far-right fringe, which has become rather more mainstream over the decades.

A half century ago, John F. Kennedy didn’t have to face the kooks and lunatics until after he was elected.

JFK told one right-wing newspaper publisher visiting the White House that was an easy thing to call for war, but rather harder to send young men off to fight it. The publisher in question owned the Dallas Morning News. That was the paper that when the president visited Texas ran a full-page ad accusing him of treason, among other things. Some blamed the publisher’s nephew for accepting the ad (he was temporarily in charge of the News), but its contents weren’t that much different from the paper’s editorial position. In any case, the president left Dallas in a coffin.

Sober commentators who believed that Oswald, and Oswald alone, shot Kennedy, suggested that the atmosphere in that bastion of the radical right pushed him over the edge.

Fast forward 45 years to Fox News’ Sean Hannity. His “Hannity’s America” on Sunday night advanced the view that Obama’s community organizing in Chicago was actually about overthrowing the federal government.

The main source in this “documentary” was one Andy Martin, who was introduced as an “internet journalist.”

The watchdog group Media Matters for America has a little more background on Martin – like his Selective Service record from 1973, which refers to his “moderately-severe character defect manifested by well documented ideation with a paranoid flavor and a grandiose character."

Also well documented is Martin’s long history of anti-Semitic pronouncements. Media Matters reports in this regard that he called a judge a “slimy, crooked Jew.” A real charmer, obviously, is Hannity's source.

But then Hannity, who boasts an Irish Catholic background, had no problem with “Obama Nation” author Jerome Corsi’s history of anti-Catholic comments. (Nor, hardly surprisingly at this point, did William Donohue of the Catholic League.)

A gap is growing, though, between right-wing commentators like the syndicated Charles Krauthammer and the likes of Hannity. And maybe that’s a hopeful sign. In a column a few days ago, Krauthammer quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. saying that FDR had “a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.'" The right-wing columnist added that Obama has “got both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament. That will likely be enough to make him president."

Friday, October 3, 2008

Veep roots

Historian Mary Lee Dunn has a very interesting opinion piece in this week's Echo -- it's available on the web site homepage and on the page 8 of the print and digital editions. Dunn is the author of "Ballykilcline Rising: From Famine Ireland to Immigrant America," published over the summer by the University of Massachusetts Press. It's been referred to as a companion book to Robert Scally's "The End of Hidden Ireland." about the same part of the world, around Strokestown, Co. Roscommon. The area is well served by recent Famine literature. Last year, Peter Duffy's "The Killing of Major Denis Mahon" was published to fine reviews.

Dunn's research and article makes the case for placing Sarah Palin's Irish ancestors, via her Sheeran grandmother, in Kilglass, which is adjacent to Ballykilcline. This is rather troubling for me, as my paternal grandmother was from that corner of County Roscommon, and my grandfather was born just a few miles away. So if Dunn is correct, then it's likely I'm much more closely related to her than the average Alaskan voter.

Joe Biden, who debated Palin in St. Louis last night, has long identified as Irish American. It puts him in a rather different category to both Palin and Obama, whose Irish roots while verifiable, are still remote and mostly a curiosity.

Biden, being Catholic for one thing, is much more a product of white ethnic America. And like many in that category, he consciously emphasizes one aspect of a mixed heritage (English is the other one that's usually cited in his case).

This is a phenomenon that was studied some years back by Harvard sociologist Mary Waters who interviewed 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-generation American Catholics for her book "Ethnic Options." She was interested in how and why they played up certain aspects of their ethnic background and minimized others.

The Democratic Party vice-presidential nominee always refers to himself as Irish Catholic -- just Al Smith was always seen as Irish, though he was very much a mix of ethnicities. Biden alluded to his Irishness by introducing his mother, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden, at his convention speech. He didn't mention her name in last night's debate when referring to her, but I think you were supposed to know she was Irish when he quoted her saying: "God love him, but he's wrong."

Sebelius's great-grandmother

During the summer, as the veep stakes were heating up, the Wall Street Journal named a Democratic shortlist of seven. Sen. Hillary Clinton was one, and Evan Bayh, who was a long-time favorite to get the nod, was another. The other five were Catholic, the WSJ pointed out. They were: Senators Jack Reed, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, and Governors Kathleen Sebelius and Tim Kaine. The Irish Echo added that the five were all Irish-American.

A week or so later, I wrote a piece making the case for Kansas’ Sebelius, who is the daughter of former Ohio Governor Jack Gilligan. Just before the DNC met, of course, one of the short-listed “Irish” was picked. At the convention itself, one of these pols managed to link their family history to actual immigrants. Here is the second paragraph of Governor Sebelius's keynote speech at the Pepsi center.

“I'm a descendent of Irish immigrants. My great-grandmother worked as a maid in the home of William Howard Taft, before he became president. Decades later, the grandson of the president and my father, the grandson of the maid, served back-to-back to represent the same district in Congress. Now, that is the American dream. It's my story, and it's the story of millions of others. Last night we heard Barack Obama's story -- how the son of a single mother from Kansas, through hard work and perseverance, has come within reach of the White House. Barack Obama was raised by a family of pragmatic, hard-working Kansans who believe in faith, in family and in community.”