Diary of a Country Bookseller

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Politics is often the way we morally and culturally define ourselves. And what we say out loud about our politics is often how others define us as well.

"So and so is a 2nd Amendment Freak," you might say, and members of both the Right Tribe and the Left Tribe believe they instinctively know whether or not the "freak" in question is a friend or foe -- and everything else about his moral and cultural condition.

G.K. Chesterton described our two main political tribes as Mr. Hudge and Mr. Gudge. In his opinion, they are portly gentlemen who operate similar corporations turning out similar products offering similar rewards, all in the quest for greater market share. Chesterton was not a cynical man, despite the Dweedle Dee Dweedle Dum analogy, but he was an idealist, and like most idealists, was not particularly nuanced when discussing politics.

Sarah Dee and Joe Dum

Chesterton's analogy certainly fails to invest Hudge and Gudge with many human qualities -- Sarah Palin and Joe Biden are awfully human if they are nothing else -- but his more subtle failure is to help us understand how Hudge and Gudge are able to inspire so much passion among their various tribal members. If the difference is only Coke vs. Pepsi, how is it that so many of us think of ourselves as more moral and more intelligent than the other guy because of our party affiliation?

Edwin O'Connor's fine novel, The Last Hurrah, offers few clues. Between the Potato Famine of 1847 and 1900, four and a half million Irish crowded into American cities such as Boston. They were segregated into tenement districts, persecuted on religious grounds, and cold shouldered by the Yankee majority. Politics, especially ward politics, was the only ladder by which they could climb out of the slums. Two real families that climbed the ladder were the Fitzgerald and Kennedy families, about whom we are all informed.

The Last Hurrah is a fictional account of the Fitzgerald/Kennedy story, and we know that it is also the story of African American families, of Steinbeck's Joad family, and perhaps your family as well. O'Connor tells that story with sympathy, and from various angles and through various eyes, and in a way that helps us remember the political environment of our childhoods or, for young people, to maybe read for the first time a human and loving description of what politics was like before it became cultural warfare.

50 years on

O'Connor's novel was published in 1956. Admittedly, that was a long time ago. Since The Last Hurrah came to light there has been Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the Baby Boom, and a concomitant 50 years of economic growth and individual and corporate prosperity that have been unprecedented in world history.

It has been our relative comfort over the past 50 years that has allowed us the luxury of endless and circular parsing amongst ourselves, and between Mr. Hudge and Mr. Gudge, about who has been righter, and who has been the more moral driver of society.

If Edwin O'Connor were still alive I am sure that he could make a fine novel out of either Barack Obama's or John McCain's life. And perhaps The Last Hurrah is John McCain's life, the story of a decent but flawed man who loses an election because he mistakes the moral fictions of Hudge and Gudge as still relevant to our changed circumstances.

More heat, less light

If Barack Obama made that mistake less often, it is likely because he is too young to have been a combatant in the cultural warfare between baby boomers: he has been able to observe, from the sidelines, the great heat and ever dimming light derived from our many, many battles. His political and policy agendas at least sound different, and his electoral victory seems like a call to put the past 50 years behind us. Although all of those years are my years and my history, I am ready to do that.

And so, to President Bush, I say thank you Sir, for your service. May you live long and prosper. And to President-elect Obama, good luck Sir, for our success hinges on yours.

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