From a Political Black Sheep: Baaaaa

In the past several years, ambitious parents-to-be have tried to enhance the developing brains of their babies in utero by playing classical music to them, sometimes through headphones placed on the mother’s belly. If this does indeed affect those developing brains, then my brain was shaped by my mother’s avid attention to the 1948 national political conventions. Long before yuppie parents bellied up to Mozart, my mother insisted I surely would be influenced by convention speeches I heard before birth during that steamy summer.

The 1948 Republican convention, June 21-25, and Democratic convention, July 12-14, were both held in Convention Hall, Philadelphia. Holding both conventions in Philadelphia allowed fledgling television networks NBC and CBS to broadcast the events to the east coast, using a cable system available only in that part of the country. Home television sets were not all that common, so most people listened to the conventions on radio. (Yes, I’m that old.) I was born on the day after the end of the Democratic convention, apparently waiting politely for my mother to get through both.

I suspect Mother didn’t give as close attention to the Democratic convention as she did the Republican, but the egalitarian experience in utero seems to have fired up enough liberal-option neural cells in my brain that, despite being steeped in my mother’s conservative views for the next 18 years, I developed progressive political views. This continues to horrify my mother, who often reminds me that I helped her canvas neighbors for Goldwater and was (briefly) a Young Republican.

The 1948 presidential election had some interesting features. Members of both parties attempted to recruit General Dwight Eisenhower, but he declined to get involved, at least for the time being. The Republican convention was relatively sedate, although three ballots were required to settle on running New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey for President.

The Democratic convention provided much more drama. In fact, the conflicts splintered Democrats into three parties, Progressives, Dixiecrats, and centrist Democrats, each of which ran a presidential candidate in the November election. Henry A. Wallace was the presidential candidate on the ballot for the Progressive Party, which was strong on the New Deal and certainly wouldn’t have run screaming for the bunkers if you called them “democratic socialists” –or worse. A number of southern Democrats walked out of the convention and left the party to form what became known as the Dixiecrats. They ran then South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for President on a pro-segregation/pro-states’ rights platform. The Democrats that constituted the party after the split tepidly supported the incumbent, Harry Truman.

Because of this split and a disastrous midterm election two years before, no one expected Democrats to win—including Democrats. However, the pro-union and pro-civil rights Truman poured himself into campaigning, including a traditional whistle-stop tour across country by train. He aggressively went after Dewey, ridiculing him for avoiding the issues, while Dewey himself ran a campaign designed to attract all voters and offend none. By comparison, Truman’s campaign was sharply critical. He called the Republican-controlled Congress a “do-nothing” Congress, which sounds pretty familiar these days. Truman had nothing to lose, since he was unpopular and not polling well. In a publicly more civil era, he could afford a little bombast.

Republicans were sure they had Truman beat. Democrats were fairly sure they did, too. The press and what we now refer to as Washington Beltway insiders were convinced Dewey would win. The Chicago Tribune was so certain, they printed an early edition proclaiming “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Photos of a triumphant Truman holding up the front page of the newspaper are famous. This is what was going on the year I was born.Dewey Defeats Truman

Fairly early in my adulthood, I learned not to discuss politics with my mother. Alas, she hasn’t come to the same conclusion regarding me. She has no intention of allowing me to continue in the error of my ways. Even pushing 90, she is sure she can “win me back” to the right political philosophy and the right way of thinking about the world if she just hammers at me long enough. However, in my most recent conversation with her, she said she wouldn’t discuss politics. I suspect the respite is temporary and has something to do with blood pressure—hers and mine.

Although political opinions don’t seem to be hereditary, passionately held political opinions apparently are. I get just as wild-eyed and upset about politics as she does, only from the opposite side of the political divide. I blame my passionate political opinions on the drama I heard in utero—that or clear-headed, realistic thinking. One or the other.