Shadow Government Shadow Government

Not cut to fit

A columnist I like, and whose name for the moment escapes me, commented that we really do not have smaller political leaders these days. "They have just been formatted," she said, "to fit our screens."

Would Abraham Lincoln be elected in 2000 America? Or Franklin Roosevelt? I doubt it.

But Tom Dewey might have a chance. He was the original of whom George W. is a distant copy, and he lost handily to Harry Truman in the good old days. In 1948, to be precise.

I have a theory about that election. I'd rather talk about 1948 than about what happened Tuesday, and I will, if you don't mind.

In '48, as you will be forgiven for not recalling, most Southern Democrats bolted the party after Truman's nominating convention endorsed equal rights for African-Americans, who mostly were not allowed to vote at that time.

The Old Confederacy had then been solidly Democrat, if not democratic, since 1876. Now about half the Southern states cast their electoral votes for South Carolina Senator Strom Thurman (who is still in the Senate, astonishingly enough).

Since '48, the Democratic Party has remained, in language if not act, pro-Civil Rights and routinely sweeps the African-American vote by margins like 19 to 1.

But 1948, by the reverse of the coin, began to move previously Democrat and thoroughly conservative white Dixie just as solidly into the Republican column. The epoch was most clearly marked in 1964, when Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater carried only his home state-and about half of the Deep South. Goldwater won the South by voting in the Senate against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

By 1988, white Southerners dominated the national Republican Party. Democratic attempts to reclaim white Southern votes produced the nominations for president of Southerners Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and will have a lot to do this year with the nomination of Tennessee's Al Gore.

The defection of the white South, as well as of racially conservative suburban Northerners, moved both parties far to the right: the Republicans to keep their new adherents, and the Democrats in generally fruitless attempts to regain what they had lost.

Neither party's members support an activist role for government (although the present strong economy is somehow often attributed to Bill Clinton's leadership, particularly by Clinton), and neither party's leadership sees much wrong with elections being for sale.

So the nation sails into a calm but vapid conservatism. So Tom Dewey might win if he were still around. So a number of our people's crueler and more bloodthirsty tendencies will receive frequent lip service-and not much more. What's so terrible about that?

Well, just this: in 1948 most Americans remembered why rule-by-the-rich was a bad idea and sent Tom Dewey back to Wall Street. Most Americans in 1948 also had a whole lot greater sense of our solidarity as a people, and a lot more kindness toward others not equally fortunate. A great depression and the world's greatest war had taught us something.

What I worry about in 2000 -- what the triumph of hollow men and nasty policies makes me worry about -- is that the next time we are tested, and you can bet we will be, just maybe we will come apart, and no Lincoln and no Roosevelt will be there to save us. ER