I always feel most American when I realize that we’ve been here before.
Turn on the news, flip open the laptop, recoil in horror, disgust and anger. All too often the “news” feels like a river of toxic sludge and partisan rage. I succumb to the misery myself. And then I realize that we’ve been here before, it’s nothing new and this too shall pass.
Really, there’s not much you can do to kill off America. Wars, economic turmoil, dissent…we’ve seen it all and we’re still here. There is nothing we as Americans can go through that won’t eventually, ultimately, result in a New Deal and a new Morning in America.
As was E.B. White for his timeless 1956 essay “Bedfellows”, I am in my sick bed, scanning history, taking mental notes from home. Home: my house, which was purchased in 2005 at the height of the “irrational exuberance” that became the great housing bubble. We were not subprime purchasers, but we were able to take advantage of the tenor of the times and only put down a token grand or so as a good-faith down payment. Owning has been a shock to the system on multiple levels, but we have weathered the market and we’re still here, on top of the mortgage.
Irrational Exuberance didn’t apply only to the great housing bubbles of our time, however. Speculation was popular in the 1920s as well. Witness John Jacob Raskob, Vice-President for Finance for DuPont and General Motors. Have you ever made car payments? You have Raskob to thank, as his General Motors Acceptance Corporation allowed GM dealers to offer installment credit directly to customers during his tenure from 1918 – 1928.
Raskob also was a firm believer in the free market, and the faith that the market would correct itself and take care of its many followers. (Sound familiar?) Witness his 1929 article in Ladies Home Journal “Everybody Ought to be Rich.” The premise was that every American investing $15 per month on common stock, with money fronted by lending institutions, would become wealthy while the entire country was swept up in the boom. Two months after the article was published, the stock market crashed.
From the crash came The Depression, Hoover’s woefully ineffectual response and the arrival of F.D.R. and the New Deal. Roosevelt, helped by Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins, spearheaded the most expansive rethinking of the role of federal government ever seen by prior generations, and he was vilified for it. But eventually, in spite of even Roosevelt, the economy recovered and the Truman and Eisenhower years were noted for, at least, economic security.
Open a newspaper (remember those?) or flip the dial and you will hear all about “Special Interests” and party-controlled media. (Hello Fox News! Hello MSNBC!) Yet, I have just read the aforementioned E.B. White essay “Bedfellows”, which again was written in 1956.
“Mr. Truman, reminiscing in a recent issue of the Times, says the press sold out in 1948 to ‘the special interests,’ was 90 percent hostile to his candidacy, distorted facts, caused his low popularity rating at that period, and tried to prevent him from reaching the people with his message in the campaign. This bold, implausible statement engages my fancy because it is a half-truth, and all half-truths excite me. An attractive half-truth in bed with a man can disturb him as deeply as a cracker crumb. Being a second-string member of the press myself, and working, as I do, for the special interests, I tend to think there is a large dollop of pure irascibility in Mr. Truman’s gloomy report. In 1948, Mr. Truman made a spirited whistle-stop trip and worked five times as hard as his rival. The ‘Republican-controlled press and radio” reported practically everything he said, and also gave vent to frequent horselaughs in their editorials and commentaries. Millions of studious, worried Americans heard and read what he said: then they checked it against the editorials; then they walked silently into the voting booths and returned him to office.”
Hmm, that all sounds awfully familiar for some reason.
And do we need more parallels? I spent my ‘20s in the 1990s fascinated by the early Nixon years, specifically 1968. And I never thought, coming of age during the relative tranquility of the Bush/Clinton years, that I would live through such a tumultuous and revolutionary time. Vietnam, race riots in Watts and Detroit, labor vs. unsanctioned, USA vs. the Eastern Threat… Sounds a lot like Afghanistan/Iraq, racial tension in Arizona and New Mexico, labor vs. unsanctioned, USA vs. the global terror threat…
And did you read about that whole Civil War thing? There was a slight bit of partisan bickering back then as well…
History repeats itself, repeats itself, repeats itself, and all trends economic and social are cyclical. And in the meantime we are all still Americans, and that’s a pretty great thing. Makes me proud, knowing that we’ve been here before, and we’ll be here again.