OUT OF THE WPA AND INTO THE GOP
How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond
By Samuel G. Freedman
Simon & Schuster -- 464pp -- $27.50
They called them the State Street Gang: a group of recent college grads whose late-1960s and '70s idealism led them to want to oust the political Establishment. They were products of hard-working America, whose fathers held such jobs as janitor, butcher, carpenter, scrap-metal dealer, and farmer. But it was not to the antiwar armies of the night that these activists were drawn. Instead, all became staunch Republicans, the foot soldiers of what would ultimately be the Reagan Revolution.
The gravitation of members of solidly Democratic families into the Republican camp is the subject of Samuel G. Freedman's masterful new book, The Inheritance. Freedman, a former New York Times reporter and author of Upon this Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, understands that such shifts have occurred with some regularity in U.S. politics. Democrats and Republicans alike have gone careening toward political extremes, drunk with popularity, leaving the opposition to enlist the newly disenchanted voters. Here, the author concentrates on the most recent shift, tracing the progress of three families over three generations as they arrive in America, struggle through the Great Depression, see the New Deal dynasty established, and finally desert the Democrats.
It's a compelling and inspiring story. After all, these are the very people whose indomitable spirit forged modern America. Here is Silvio Burigo, orphaned and forced to leave school in 1918 at age 15 to take up the plumbing trade, fighting prejudice and petty corruption to become a leader in his union and his immigrant neighborhood in New Rochelle, N.Y. But the Great Depression showed Burigo and millions like him that self-reliance and community weren't enough. He needed ``help larger than any Local 86 or the North Italy Society could possibly muster, help as large as the President's.''
So, too, did the family of Mary Elizabeth Sanford come to understand that their future lay with Democrats. An impoverished Irish widow, she emigrated with her three children to Manhattan's San Juan Hill. Life in the first decade of the 20th century was grim: So common was tuberculosis that ``you never saw a gray-haired Irishman.'' As Mary succumbed to illness, daughter Lizzie and her out-of-work husband decamped with their two children to Ossining, N.Y., to live on a shantytown hillside. The offended Republican municipal government denied them any aid. Only Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration saved the family and the squatter community from slow starvation.
Things were better for the family of Joseph Obrycki, bookmaker, restaurant owner, and Democratic ward heeler in a Polish neighborhood of Baltimore. People wanted to bet on the numbers, even in hard times. But the old-line Democratic mayor disdained aid from Washington; it would have meant giving jobs to blacks. As a result of that attitude, only 68 men in the city of 800,000 had WPA jobs in 1934. Meanwhile, the GOP fought the notion that government had a responsibility for the growing ranks of the poor. In 1936, GOP Presidential candidate Alf Landon said that the New Deal had ``destroyed the morale of our people.''
The irony was that as recently as 1924, it had been the Democrats, led by three-time Presidential loser William Jennings Bryan, who refused to get it. As America's cities were filling with immigrants from Europe, Bryan was championing the farmer. ``You do not represent the future of our country,'' he told urbanites.
The Democrats were rescued by Alfred E. Smith, an Irish Catholic whose losing 1928 Presidential campaign broadened the party's appeal by addressing immigrant laborers, who were becoming a key swing vote. The job was completed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose programs aided millions. Despite this, however, Burigo's grandson became a Republican lawyer, Lizzie's grandson a Republican campaign strategist, and Obrycki's granddaughter a GOP staffer.
What happened? In the 1960s and '70s, working-class ethnics felt abandoned by the Democratic Party. Its limousine liberals insisted on busing the children of white working-class neighborhoods to schools in black areas. Party leaders either fled to the suburbs or sent their own kids to private schools. The children of prominent Democrats went to college; the sons of the Poles, the Irish, and the Italians were drafted and sent to Vietnam. And back home, they faced something their parents had never known: affirmative action. The Democrats' abandonment of working-class ethnics is an old story, perhaps, but Freedman's family portraits make the point far more vividly than a stack of poli-sci textbooks.
Meanwhile, the more prosperous the older generation became, the more its members resented the high tax rates of the growing welfare state. By 1980, ethnic Democrats had had enough. They flocked to support a former liberal Democrat, California Governor Ronald Reagan.
Despite the missteps of the current Republican Congress, Freedman isn't ready to say the pendulum is swinging back against the GOP. After all, a chastened White House is compliantly helping dismantle New Deal programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children. But sooner or later, traditional swing voters with names like Burigo and Obrycki--and perhaps Kim, Gonzales, and Singh--will be called on to discipline wayward parties.
By Paul Magnusson
Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.