Once upon a time, and not that long ago, the Grand Old Party was actually pretty grand. And that kids, is not a fairy tale.
Today when the Republican party is populated by turtles who morph into weasels, sly foxes playing possum, and spineless skunks spraying their odious scent wherever they go, it can certainly resemble a pretty Grimm fairy tale.
It may be hard to fathom but the GOP of my youth was an alternative to the Democratic party and not an alternative reality. With different approaches to governing, Republicans were willing to reach across the aisle to make progress on issues that would best serve the American people.
Compromise was part of their vocabulary.
A Republican Past
Recently while packing up my home for moving, I came across a large carton of vintage Republican campaign posters, saved from the years when my father was the president of the local Long Island Theodore Roosevelt Republican Club.
During election season the storefront campaign headquarters of his club was always filled with long tables laden with free give-away campaign tokens. Along with the ubiquitous brochures, pin-back buttons, broadsheets, and cardboard posters, there were plastic rain bonnets festooned with dancing elephants, emery boards with the candidate’s names inscribed on them, and colorful plastic-coated book covers for the kiddies to cover their school books with.
Each season’s leftover political paraphernalia ultimately ended up in our family basement. The flip side of the large cardboard posters with the smiling candidates’ faces became perfect blank canvases for me to draw on. I still have dozens of drawings I did on the back of Al D’Amato for Hempstead Town Supervisor posters. I also conveniently used them to make my own homemade Robert Kennedy For President posters which gave me special delight.
But this huge collection mostly sat in our cellar, disorganized and scattered where they remained untouched for 35 years. When I packed up my parent’s home a few years ago I organized them, moving it all to my house where it remained unopened, blending in with my own clutter.
Until just now.
Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon notwithstanding, the posters now splayed in front of me as I removed them from the box, was a reminder of the Republican’s more noble past. For most of my childhood, New York had not only a Republican Governor but a senator, both with liberal views on domestic issues.
As though unearthing a relic of antiquity, here were a large cache of Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits posters neatly stacked, packed away in mothballs not unlike the Republican party itself.
Jacob Javits was my first political kiss as a baby, and my admiration for this progressive Republican long remained with me. When it came to Republicans and their record on social issues it was hard to beat Jacob Javits. The longtime senator from New York was a leader of Progressive Republicanism for more than 3 decades and was one of the most liberal voices in the senate. Javits was not only pro-civil rights he was Jewish.
A son of Jewish immigrants, a boychik born in a tenement on the Lower East Side of N.Y.C. helped explain why he was the first and only Republican my Roosevelt-nik -Democrat mother ever voted for.
A Rocky Start
Smiling I picked up a familiar button with the words “Dems For Rocky.” Long before Sylvester Stallone coopted that name, the 4 term governor of New York was affectionately known as Rocky. A politician who self-described as having a” Democratic Heart with a Republican head” Rockefeller would be a political anomaly today.
A die-hard democrat even as a child did not stop me from admiring some politicians from the other side of the aisle.
It’s hard to imagine that as a teen, I not only had a large life-size poster of Bobby Kennedy scotch-taped to the faux wood paneling wall in my finished basement but an equally large portrait of Nelson Rockefeller.
Admittedly I had a soft spot for Rocky.
Smitten at seven, Rocky had pinched my cheek and called me sweetie!
I had met the Governor who always had his eye on the White House at a political fundraising event my father took me to in the early 1960s.
Rockefeller’s magnetic grin and perennial greeting of “Hiya Fella” was the stuff of political cartoons and parody. He was broad-shouldered and stocky and by the time I met him his reddish-brown hair was turning silver. No photo exists of our encounter but the moment when he locked eyes with mine saying “Hiya sweetie” it was indelibly imprinted in my mind over half a century later. His autograph, a quickly scribbled “Rocky” on a piece of paper my father must have thrust at him, was as cherished as though it were from a Beatle.
He was a larger-than-life character who came from a larger-than-life family. He was a genuine Rockefeller for God’s sake when that name really meant something! Like the much-admired Kennedys, this privileged man devoted his life to public service. Rockefeller famously said, “if you have poor education and poor health then I believe society has let you down.”
A supporter of civil rights, he came to represent what became known as Rockefeller Republicans. These were more moderate or liberal Republicans from the 1930s through the 1970s who supported social liberalism and fiscal conservatism. This liberal group part of the Eastern Establishment began to lose power in 1964 in a contentious primary campaign between Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater in a bid for the presidency where Goldwater crusaded strongly against Rockefeller Republicans.
The rise of the more conservative wing of the GOP began with Goldwater setting the stage for a conservative resurgence based on the south and west culminating in the Reagan Revolution in 1980. It was the death knell for the Rockefeller Republicans.
Soon the phrase Rockefeller Republican came to be used in a pejorative sense by moderate conservatives who derided those in the Republican party that are perceived to have views that are too liberal especially on social issues. The slow slow decline of the Republican party had begun.
If today’s Neanderthal Republicans are so hell-bent on returning us to the past, they might be inspired by parts their own.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2021.