Beer Summit

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My late father, a lifelong Democrat, sometimes to an absurd degree, told me two stories about presidents that illustrate why the current Democratic president is not beloved by all.

The first story is about Warren Harding. President Harding made a long trip to Alaska and the west coast, and near the start of this journey his train stopped briefly in Bridgeport, Illinois, my dad’s hometown. My father (14 years old at the time) heard that the train was coming through at noon, so he got on his bike and went down to the station. And there was the train, with the president standing by himself on the back platform, intending to greet the assembled populace.

But for some reason, the populace had not assembled. Maybe people hadn’t known that the train was going to stop. Anyway, there was my father, looking for the president; and there was the president, looking for the crowd, and finding only one teenage boy. The two spent a lonely moment, gazing at each other. My father stared at Harding, and Harding stared back at him. Then the president’s face crinkled into a smile, and he waved, very friendly, as if there were no one else in the world besides my father, as if his presence was more than sufficient to make the president happy (as well it may have been, because Harding was a pretty good guy); and my father smiled and waved happily back at him. Then the train pulled out. “And that,” as my father put it, “was his last trip, the one on which he died.”

I’ve said that my dad was a more or less fanatical Democrat, but he was so impressed by the Republican President Harding’s unpretentious friendliness that half a century later, when for some business purpose he had to visit Harding’s hometown, Marion, Ohio, he sought out Harding’s tomb, walked up to the barred gate, shook the bars, and called to the president, “Warren, I’m here!”

Can you imagine this happening with Obama and any stray fellow citizen? For one thing, Obama would never appear at any time without a crowd of guards and political handlers surrounding him. For another, the idea of having to waste time on a mere solitary, useless individual would put him in one of those nasty tempers we see whenever The President Is Disappointed. And perhaps his instincts are right; perhaps he can appear to advantage only in the midst of a cheering throng.

Well. My second story is about Franklin Roosevelt, my father’s idol. It seems that during the 1932 campaign, Roosevelt’s train stopped at someplace near Bridgeport — I think it was Vincennes, Indiana — and FDR made a little speech from the back of the train. It was long after dark, but there was a throng, all right, some part of it very drunk and very concerned about getting rid of Prohibition. Roosevelt started his remarks, only to be interrupted by a group of men yelling, “We want beer! We want beer!” (And rightly so.)

Obama would have been stymied by this disruption. He wouldn’t have been able to find a response on either of his teleprompters. Besides, his shtick is pretending that he’s just a common guy, like the rest of us — so how could he object, or even pay attention, to anything that a bunch of common guys might say, or shout? Also, he’s a stickler for the idea that he gets to lecture us; we don’t get to lecture him — and being nothing more than a television figure, he can’t allow for any dead air. “We want beer!” would blow his circuits; he couldn’t imagine what to do with it.

But Roosevelt could. He had no conception, ever, of pretending to be the common man. Why should he? He was a phony, but he wasn’t that much of a phony, or a phony in that obvious way. He knew that people wanted to get something out of politics besides a reflection of themselves, in their most ordinary moods.

So he paused deliberately, turned his head majestically in the direction of the disrupters, and announced, in his strange, slow, nasal, almost incredibly artificial voice, a voice that could never be mistaken for that of a common person: “You’ll. Get. Your. Beer.” He made a similarly definite gesture with one hand, extended toward the shouters. Then he went on with his speech.

Notice that he didn’t say, as Obama certainly would have said (eventually), that, uh, his position had, uh, always been favorable toward the, uh uh, possibility that alcohol of, uh uh um, some variety or uh type might someday be, um, legalized, pending the, uh, report of a commission, um, appointed to consider . . . . Roosevelt wanted to do away with Prohibition, so why go on and on about it, as if he didn’t want to abolish it after all? Indeed, a year or so later, Prohibition was dead.

But here’s the point. Roosevelt wasn’t a threatened person, trying to assert his authority in a high-school-principal way. He wasn’t a puppet, crafted by the David Axelrods of this world, that can’t depart from its script. He was capable of astonishing demagoguery (my words, not my dad’s), but he was not the kind of demagogue who has trouble communicating with people who fail to appreciate the mystifying promises conveyed by such phrases as “the audacity of hope.”

So those guys at Vincennes got their beer. They got it the very next year. What have Obama’s voters gotten from Obama, the very next year.

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