My thoughts at this grim hour of the Trump Era turn back to earlier presidents, men who regardless of their shortcomings and faults spoke a common language with the American people. They were frank, even guileless before a microphone, no match for the eloquence of FDR, who could seduce the silver off a teaspoon. What I am thinking about is how the Democrats lost that connection after Kennedy died and never got it back, not even with Johnson, or Clinton and his Arkansas drawl. Nor with Obama, whom the Republicans liked to call "the professor" with undisguised derision. The public that votes is still the unwashed multitudes that poured in from all sides of the world to become Americans in the last two centuries. College is still something of a novelty to many of them.
Back in the late l940s, Democrats were still identifying themselves with unions and industrial workers, with farmers and small-business entrepreneurs. FDR's patrician ways were a novelty to many, not a threat to the constituency of the party. His upstate New York accent made my mother laugh, who would imitate his peculiar flattened r's at the dinner table, drawling out the phrase, "We don't want wah!" to our gleeful laughter
The little haberdasher from Lamar, Missouri, Harry Truman, spoke like an ordinary American, and was easily upset and rancorous when political foes went after him. He only spent 82 days as Vice President under FDR before assuming the presidency and using the dreaded A-Bomb on Japan. He liked to call the press corps "boys," as if he were talking to farmhands in rural Missouri. The day he won the presidency he held up the Chicago Tribune bearing the headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman," and his grin told it all. He was from the country and he had never earned a degree from a college. He dropped out of law school in Kansas and was going to wing it in Washington on his own wits. I won't call out all his achievements as a New Dealer or, as he would prefer to say, a "Fair Dealer" while in office, because the real point of my thoughts is that he was a commoner, an unpretentious man whose image was unvarnished by spin doctors. The science of electioneering had not yet been born.
But in 1960, one talked about the "making of the president," after Theodore H. White's account of John Kennedy's 1960 campaign, which captured the magic of Kennedy's persona and the glittering social life that surrounded him and his wife Jackie. A sweating Nixon, jackal-eyed with a five o'clock shadow, was his opponent, who talked through his nose, hunched his shoulders like Fagin, and showed that commonness had become somehow tainted, ugly. Kennedy was blond, and tousled attractively, with a blue blazer and white slacks to suggest he was part of the yachting circle. He was rich, different, he spoke in a Harvard accent that made being smart suddenly charming, a status symbol. He liked the press and collaborated with them on a carefully cultivated myth of an American Camelot, with Kennedy as the new King Arthur, and Jackie as the comely Guinevere.
But Kennedy only lasted three years in office; he never liked Johnson, a Texas rancher and part of some underworld of legislators in the Congress who got things done by hook and crook, who took his place. It was a dark day for the young, who were spellbound by the young president and horrified by the craggy-faced, world-weary Johnson, who was a throwback to the dark days of the 1940s and l950s. Kennedy was an elixir, the drug idealists and the young swallowed to make them think the Democratic Party had suddenly morphed into a voice for the relatively small part of the nation that had been to Yale and Berkeley, and could play a little Chopin on the piano, marry into families that carefully cultivated their daughters to pursue careers in medicine and law, and have children who were destined to attend Emory, Tulane, Dartmouth and Barnard. It was a dream and it was based on a false assumption that the nation was suddenly highly refined and had evolved into something it could never be -- Plato's republic of the enlightened.
The vast general population was and always will be workaday people, wage earners, semi-skilled factory hands and clerks, undemanding in terms of food and entertainment, not terribly curious about politics or the sausage making of bills in Congress. These are not people who read avidly the editorial columns of the newspaper; they are giving up reading papers and depending instead on TV news, on talk radio, on ministers on Sunday, on diluted textbook information about history. High school was intended to teach the ordinary basic skills, not philosophy. It helped immigrants assimilate and learn the elementary rules of life in America. The sexual revolution frightened many families and made them cling to their morality and traditions more strictly. They pushed away what many considered false freedoms, liberties that bordered on anarchy. What was taken for granted in college classrooms was banned from discussion in high school and at church. The super class forming out of university education assumed everyone thought like it did -- everyone was a relativist, a Darwinian, an experimenter in social mores. But fear and reactionary convulsions in the heartlands made the rest of society drift backward to some imaginary Norman Rockwell America. The gap between them soon became a Grand Canyon running down the center of American consciousness.
Kennedy was not the beginning of a new age of intellectual openness, but the end of some momentary reflex achieved by a core of universities that pushed toward ultimate freedom without restraint. When Clinton emerged on the political scene, he seemed like another Kennedy, but without the New England panache. He was a faint copy of Camelot, and his sexual license made his learning worthless; he may have dazzled with his wonkiness and his eloquence, but he was unable to steer the ship of state. He couldn't do it; the Republicans knew his weaknesses, the taints on his character and impeached him for it. He exposed the flaws of the university renaissance, that it appeared hollow at its moral core. It was more virtuous to be anti-intellectual in the post-Clinton era than it was to be a whiz kid. That is why the Bush years were such a paradox of ignorance and gut decisions and colossal errors of judgment.
And it explains why a legal scholar and polymath like Obama was ridiculed for his bookishness and ignored for his genuine political accomplishments. The Republicans voiced the objections of a vast part of America that rejected Obama's academic sophistication and associated it with the corrupt anti-American liberalism of the American university. As late as the 1990s, David Hyde Pierce, the co-star of the Seattle-based sitcom, Frasier, could make the remark about a possible rival to his love interest, Daphne, "He has community college written all over him." That demarcation pinpointed the difference between an "upper" America of the university-initiated and the blue collar world of functionaries and lowbrows.
Gone were the common-man presidents of earlier decades, who did not represent any such intellectual polarization in America. Republicans dare not groom candidates for the White House as thinkers, readers, savants of the higher order of learning; they exploit the festering resentments of such qualities in promoting the George W. Bushes and the Donald Trumps. The dividing line between parties may not wholly reside in the issue of racism and feminist liberation but in the erosion of certain comforting moral absolutes brought on by the spread of university education in the post-World War II era.