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Happy Days Are Here Again?

November 1, 2004

    Some pundit said recently there’d be no singing of “Happy Days Are Here Again” no matter who wins the presidential campaign. I beg to differ.

    Standing among the exuberant throngs at the Friday night [Oct. 29, 2004] “Bringing it Home” rally for John Edwards at the Dorton Arena in Raleigh, N.C., I could almost hear those anthems from earlier movements for peace and justice in America as my mind flashed backwards in time: to one tense night in 1963 when raucous crowds jammed the sidewalks and narrow street outside the Durham County Courthouse as the civil rights demonstrators in the jail cells on the top floors chilled every spine down below with a rousing chorus from their very souls, “we are not afraid…we shall overcome some day;” and to a similarly chilling moment at a Moratorium March on Washington, D.C. in 1969 when I first heard Pete Seeger start the simple plea, almost with a whisper, and then heard it rise to a roar across the Mall: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

    However the election turns out, the work of people who believe in peace and justice in America is just beginning. If Bush wins, our work is cut out for us. We have an administration every bit as corrupt as the Nixon administration, with enough lies and fraud to make for a dozen impeachment trials of the President on down. We have a war going on that is even more senseless and unnecessary than the Vietnam War was. The mobilization of forces must begin again; we must take to the streets once again, although you can be sure the Bush administration will be far more destructive in its reaction than the Nixon crowd was. And the fact that these people just might create some false emergency like Hitler’s burning of the Reichstag in order to “preserve order” is not far from the mind of anyone with a sense of recent history.

    For four years now, we have been subjected to the most divisive presidency in American history. A President is supposed to lead by example, to bring people together, not to polarize and drive us apart as George Bush has done. Under the guise of morality, “compassion,” and godliness, he has fostered the most selfish and immoral leadership in our time. George Bush struts about as the chosen son of Jesus, but he seems to forget that nearly every one of the parables of Jesus was aimed at the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who wore their religion on their sleeves and used it for political ends. He forgets that Jesus Christ said not one word about homosexuality, abortion or same sex marriage, but constantly pointed out the immorality of selfish rich people with no regard for the plight of the less fortunate. Just as Jesus turned on the money changers in the Temple, we must wage a crusade of reason and common sense against America's own ayatolloahs and the hypocrisy that has taken root and taken control of our government.

    And if Kerry and Edwards win, we will have no less a struggle on our hands. Although their success is in large part due to the anti-war vote, Kerry and Edwards both have a shameful record in support of the war in Iraq. Thanks to those who created the phenomenal crusade for Howard Dean, we have a new base among progressives and the Democratic Party in America. As one Iowa voter said, “The Democratic Party has come alive again.” I am 63 years old and I have watched in growing dismay as the Democratic Party has moved further and further away from its base among working people, minorities and the middle class. There hasn’t been a real Democratic governor of North Carolina since Terry Sanford and even he had to live within the limits our culture imposed upon him. Far more liberal than he ever let on in public, Sanford even had it down to a science: “Go as far to the right as you can stand, go as far to the left as the public can stand.” I will never forget working as a press aide to Richardson Preyer, the most talented man ever to run for any office in North Carolina. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law, a federal judge, champion tennis player, and jazz musician so good he sat in with Coltrane and other greats in the genre, Preyer was forced to compromise time and again on the race issue. The candidate had to meet in secret with black leaders to get their support. Our campaign took out full page newspaper ads that lied and said Preyer was against integration of the schools, “Don’t Let them Fool You about Richardson Preyer and Integration.” Still, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses to protest Preyer in 50 town squares across North Carolina the night before the runoff primary election. And, we lost, bigtime. In a quiet moment after the campaign, I said to Preyer, “If we had to lose, I wish we could have lost with some integrity.” Embittered by that campaign, I went off to New York and other parts and did not return to North Carolina for 25 years.

    When I came home again, I found a Democratic Party little different from the Republicans, not so much conservative as scared on every issue you could name. Led by the shameful example of Jesse Helms, race was still the card most successful politicians played, even if they now used polite code words to disguise it. But in John Edwards, we had a man emerge from nowhere with a fresh voice and the promise of change within that system. He had never been elected to anything, so he had no obligations, no ties to the jaded North Carolina Democratic Party in place. The son of a mill hand and a postal worker, union people, he knew first hand what it meant to get “laid off” from your job. He knew first hand what it meant to have no money for a college education. He knew about the rising costs of health care. And he knew the evils of our racist past because he had lived it himself. As one astute observer noted, “Only a white Southerner like Edwards” could speak so movingly and eloquently about the evils of racism because he had experienced it and knew it was wrong.

    Whether is was personal conviction or political expediency that caused Edwards to deliver that needlessly fervent speech in favor of Bush’s war in Iraq, we will never know for sure. Being a correspondent veteran of the Vietnam War, I could clearly see from the beginning that those naďve chickenhawks in the White House and the Pentagon were making the very same mistakes we had all vowed never to repeat after the Vietnam tragedy. Edwards and Kerry voted for the war and never backed down from those votes. They have a lot of accounting to do to those of us who put them in office if they are the winners on Tuesday.

    As I listened to the lively rock music and did a little dance step or two myself, I didn’t think there was any danger that these new Democrats would not hold Kerry and Edwards accountable for their campaign promises. If Kerry is not able to end this war and bring the troops home as promised, I genuinely feel people will take to the streets just as they would with Bush in the White House. I could feel the spirit of change in the very air at the Dorton Arena. Beside me were black and white members of Teamsters of North Carolina, and I.B.E.W. of North Carolina, the woman who led the get-out-the-vote crusade among blacks in Durham. All around me were old people, young people, gays and straights, blacks, Asians, Latinos, a wonderful assortment of children. But, mostly they were young. When Edwards mentioned the 40 per cent rise in tuition costs, the place went wild, young college students roared their outrage all the way to the rafters.

    And so, I, for one, will feel like singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” even if Bush wins. The song is just as ironic in the hard times we face now as it was when people sang it during the Depression. As then, we have just begun to fight. But, at along last, thank God Almighty, there is hope for change among the millions of people who got involved in the election this year, many of them for the first time. And you can count on this: We are not going to go home from the polls and remain quiet—no matter who wins.