My years as a liberal. . . and how I got fired

SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES – Back in Philadelphia, my father was helping to found Americans for Democratic Action. At the national level, in the late 1940s he joined such people as Hubert Humphrey, Eleanor Roosevelt and Eugene McCarthy to create what would be, for many years, a loud and controversial voice of cold war liberalism. Although the message was clear enough, the practice sometimes became muddled as when my father and some others agitated to make Dwight Eisenhower the Democratic candidate for president. At the local level, however, ADA was at the center of one of the nation’s most remarkable reform movements.

Philadelphia had lived for 69 years under Republican rule and the city was known as “corrupt and contented.” ADA – which brought under one tent genteel white liberals, union leaders, and Jewish and black activists – proposed to end both the corruption and the contentment about it with a new city charter and new government.

Leon Shull, who would become one of the nation’s most productive and long-lived lobbyists for liberal causes, was the director of the Philadelphia chapter and, with my father as chair, I soon found myself an enthusiastic envelope-stuffer. I had already entered politics having performed competently in a 6th grade debate on the 1948 presidential election, fortified for this task by having actually shaken hands with the Democratic candidate at a political dinner to which my father had taken me. And I was further armed with a comic book from the Democratic National Committee that featured a bespectacled Harry Truman in the trenches of World War I, a bespectacled Harry Truman running his haberdashery and a bespectacled Harry Truman speaking great thoughts about the future of America. I stood up against the reactionary cant of my opponent Owen Tabor with a skill that only I remember.

I found the liberal cause noble and exciting, but I was also fascinated by the different sort of people who hung around political offices. I had met hardly any blacks or labor union officials in Germantown and Chestnut Hill, they certainly didn’t attend St. Martins in the Fields, but most of all I hadn’t met many people with the sort of tough-talking enthusiasm one found in politics. These were people totally engaged not only with their campaigns but with life and it was this quality, rather than their ethnicity or even their politics, that truly attracted me – so different as it was from the restrained, diffident manner of the upper class Philadelphian, members of a subspecies that has been described as God’s frozen people.

That these were people to be reckoned with was confirmed ten years later when my parents held a fundraiser for Hubert Humphrey. It was, of course, a son’s delight to accompany his father on the 45-minute drive (and monologue) back to the airport with an actual United States senator who wanted to be President. But the most impressive moment of that evening came when Joseph Rauh, the civil rights lawyer and liberal leader for decade after decade, actually stood on one my parents’ best antique chairs to make his pitch. I looked apprehensively at my mother but she only seemed proud — “pleased as punch” Humphrey would have said and probably did — to be there. I stared at Rauh and realized I was looking at the face of real power.

The stars of the Philadelphia ADA were Joseph Sill Clark and Richardson Dilworth. Though both were patrician in name and bearing, in Clark the quality went through to his soul. With Dilworth it stopped with his tailored suits. He was an ex-Marine with a quick temper and a towny accent, who never ducked combat or favored equivocation. After the pair had shaken the GOP regime by winning the offices of comptroller and district attorney, Dilworth got the first chance to run for mayor, with Clark succeeding him and then moving to the Senate.

Dilworth’s mayoral race remains a classic. His most notable campaign technique was the street corner rally, which he developed to a degree probably unequalled since in American politics. Using the city’s only Democratic string band as a warm-up act, Dilworth would mount a sound truck and tick off the sins of the Republican administration. On one occasion he parked next to the mayor’s home and told his listeners: “Over there across the street is a house of prostitution and a numbers bank. And just a few doors further down this side of the street is the district police station. . . The only reason the GOP district czars permit Bernard Samuel to stay on as mayor is that he lets them do just as they please.”

At first the crowds were small. But before long he was attracting hundreds at a shot with four or five appearances a night. One evening some 12,000 people jammed the streets to catch the man who would eventually become mayor.

Dilworth on another occasion got into a fist fight with a member of his audience. His wife once knocked an aggressive heckler off the platform with her handbag and, in a later campaign, his daughter picketed the office of the GOP candidate with a sign reading, “Why won’t you debate the issues with my father on TV?”

The Republicans responded with sneers, rumors and allegations about Dilworth’s liberalism and, in particular, his association with ADA. The GOP city chairman, William Meade, called ADA communist-infiltrated and `inside pink’ where “Philadelphia members of that radical and destructive [Democratic] party have gone underground and joined the Dilworth ranks.”

Dilworth’s initial reaction was to call Meade a “liar” and to challenge him to a debate. Said Dilworth: “The ADA acted and struck hard against communism while Mr. Meade and his gang created by their corruption the very conditions that breed communism.”

But that wasn’t enough for Dilworth. To make his point, he marched into the offices of the Republican City Committee and, with press in tow, brushed past the receptionist, and barged into Meade’s private office where the chairman was conversing with two city officials. Dilworth challenged Meade to name one Communist in ADA. When Meade demurred, Dilworth said Meade had accused him of treason: “If you want to debate publicly, I’ll go before any organization you name. I’ll go before your ward leaders. I challenge you to produce evidence of a single Communist or Communist sympathizer in ADA. I say this as one who fought for his country in the Marine Corps. That’s more than you did, Mr. Meade.”

“Maybe I wasn’t physically fit,” replied Meade.

Dilworth continued the confrontation a few minutes longer and then stormed out. The red-baiting subsided and the central issue once more became corruption. Dilworth won and as I read the big black headlines, I thought it was my victory too.

SAM SMITH, 1993 – I have recently been officially fired as a liberal, ignominiously stripped of my rank as an executive vice president of Americans for Democratic Action, keeper of the holy grail of liberalism.

When I first heard that this was going to happen — shortly before entering the hospital for surgery — I was stunned. For all other executive vice presidents the only apparent grounds for termination had been death. Did the leadership of ADA know something that I didn’t?

No, it was just that ADA had decided to end years of populist insurgency in its ranks, simulating the Democratic Leadership Council’s successful efforts at quashing dissent within the Democratic Party. I and a number of other board members who had failed to hew to the party line were to be purged. Liberalism would once again be safe from the winds of change. Included in our number was a former national treasurer, the present chair of the Chicago chapter, and the former chair of Youth for Democratic Action.

About a year and a half ago we had formed a progressive caucus within ADA. The paleoliberals in the leadership took kindly to neither the idea nor the irony of the name. To be sure, we were not openly accused of political incorrectitude. At first we weren’t accused of anything. Later — and only after the fact, when Washington’s City Paper got wind of the purge — we were charged with being “disruptive troublemakers.” I was personally accused of acting like both John the Baptist and Svengali, a truly remarkable blend of virtues and vices. In fact, our troublemaking had consisted largely of writing letters and introducing resolutions the ADA leadership didn’t like. Apparently in ADA, dissent is considered a political dirty trick.

I was initially quite aggravated at the development but then it occurred to me that being a certified ex-liberal had a certain appeal. I fantasized about being called before the House UnMainstream Activities Committee to testify on how cells of heavily armed liberals had undermined the first six months of the Clinton administration, how gays were planning a mass assault on the Morman Tabernacle, or about next season’s secret line up of TV series aimed at perverting family values. I could only fantasize, however, because the truth is that liberals these days don’t do much at all. Contrary to Rush Limbaugh’s allegations, liberalism in the past decade or so has been marked by its ineffectiveness. Certainly this had been true of ADA, -the leading multi-issue liberal organization in the country. ADA’s most notable achievements had been its annual rating of Congress and its Christmastide toy safety survey. Now even the toy survey is gone.

To some of us in the organization, ADA’s ineffectiveness seemed unfortunate and unnecessary. We naively assumed that the group would be open to new ideas and strategic approaches. Nothing proved further than the truth. Even when an alternative drug policy was twice approved by a national convention over the almost apoplectic opposition of ADA’s leadership, the matter was simply filed away so that no one outside the organization would ever hear about it. As the Texas politician said, I don’t mind losing when I lose, but I hate losing when I win.

The ADA establishment – some which goes back to the organization’s founding in the late 1940s — is as adept at internal judo as it is lethargic in political action. Thus an extraordinary amount of effort is spent on maintaining political correctness within the group while the nation drifts undisputed towards the right. Some of the organization’s leaders bring to mind Charles Hodge, who taught at Princeton Seminary in the early 19th century. Hodge boasted that in his fifty years of teaching he had never broached a new or original idea.
To be sure, as in a bad movie, occasional cameo scenes bring things back to life. For example, ADA helped to sink the Bork nomination and has been working hard on single-payer health insurance. Many of ADA’s other positions are admirable, although one often admires them somewhat in the sense that one admires a restored Studebaker.

ADA seems largely unaware of the depth of the growing revulsion against an overexpensive, overauthoritarian and overcentralized government. It ignores such major new ideological influences as the Green movement It feels threatened whenever anyone suggests a modification of the standard liberal canon. Most of all, it no longer fulfills its former role as a political catalyst. Not only is no one afraid of ADA today; many haven’t even heard of it, or will tell you that “I thought that died years ago.”

But the organization has other priorities. What it seems to want, above all, is to retain its status as the official voice of liberals in Washington, even if this status has some of the limited elan, say, of being an alleged Russian count in Manhattan. To challenge liberal orthodoxy would risk losing caste with its orthodox liberal allies in Congress and losing funding from its orthodox labor backers. In fact, ADA is even afraid of challenging the Clinton administration. It implicitly perceives that it can not regain its former political stature without risking its social position. It is better to leave things alone. Thus this once vibrant organization rests on the political landscape, as Disraeli once said of the opposition bench, like a range of exhausted volcanoes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.