Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Al Pirnie, won't you please come home?

I remember when the Republicans were the good guys.

Actually, most everyone I knew in Central New York State in the 1950s was a good Republican. My father wore a red plastic elephant on his lapel that said "Ike" or something on it, but I coveted the pin for its cartoon-like charm alone.

My grandparents on both sides were solid Republicans. Grandpa Emerson talked of having lunch with Theodore Roosevelt, although I never knew if it was just Grandpa and Teddy or if a thousand other Republicans were there, too. Grandpa Jenks was the Republican who ran the armory in Oneonta, and when he wanted to cuss really bad, he said, "Eleanor."

The biggest family party of the year was when Grandma and Grandma Jenks drove to Morrisville from Oneonta to watch the 1952 election returns on our 12-inch Admiral television, and we cheered when Eisenhower was swept into office after 20 years of Democrat misrule. I still get giddy when I think about it.

I did know at least one other Democrat, LaVerne Darrow, the village barber. LaVerne was a genial chap with a white smock like his Mayberry counterpart, Floyd, who emanated sweet cologne and whose own hair was immaculately parted in the middle. LaVerne never talked politics with his customers, which would have been bad business, but it was generally whispered about that he was not like the rest of us.

My mother, too, it turned out, was a closet Democrat.

Much to Grandpa Emerson's consternation, she voted for FDR in 1944 and JFK in 1960. I think she voted with the Democrats fairly consistently until 1980, when she switched to Ronald Reagan, co-star of her favorite film, King's Row.
Looking back, I can easily imagine myself registering Republican, if only to get one of those cool plastic elephants for my lapel, but John F. Kennedy changed that forever. JFK captured a generation of young idealists, made us think politics was honorable and good, and challenged us to ask not what our country could do for us but what we could do for our country. But even then I thought some of my best friends were Republicans. Had to be. So far as I knew, my barber and I were the only Democrats in Morrisville. And in the early 60s, if I had any chance of following my political interests in Madison County, N.Y., it had to involve Republicans.

Happily, there were some great Republicans around. Governor Nelson Rockefeller came to Colgate University, eight miles from Morrisville, to address the annual Boy's State gathering and my father, a Boy's State counselor, arranged for me to be in the balcony for the Governor's speech. Rocky was extroverted, charming and charismatic, and I thought then that when JFK retired from politics I could be a Rockefeller Republican. (Attica and the Rockefeller Drug Laws were still in the future.) Too, the U.S. Senators from New York State, were Jacob Javits, a liberal Civil Rights advocate, and Kenneth Keating, a smiling moderate who also parted his white hair like Floyd the barber. Despite my partisan enthusiasm for the New Frontier, all the Republicans I knew were decent, hardworking and open-minded public servants.

Alexander Pirnie was my favorite. Pirnie, a lawyer and businessman from Utica, was a World War II hero with a Bronze Star and Legion of Merit who represented us in Congress from 1959 to 1972.

I don't remember what Pirnie's politics were exactly, but he couldn't have been elected in Central New York without being a conservative. I do know he was extremely responsive to his constituents, including a 16-year-old kid who couldn't vote. I made sure I attended as many of Pirnie's visits to Morrisville as I could. He came to the dedication of the new post office in 1961 and presented the post mistress (Hannah Curtis, a Democrat appointed to the job during the Truman Administration) with a flag that had flown over the capitol. Pirnie was not dismayed by the huge portrait of JFK that hung in the post office lobby, and his greeting to the crowd was one of my first encounters with political palaver.

"I'm usually introduced by someone who says, 'Well, here's the latest dope from Washington,'" he began, followed by a brief recap of legislation facing the House. He was great.
Afterwards, I wanted to ask him how many flags flew over the Capitol before they were presented to post offices in Congressional Districts. He leaned his head toward me attentively and his mouth dropped open a little when I asked, "Is there some guy there who raises and lowers flags all day?"

He stood up and smiled. "Well, not all day, I don't think."

"Are you going to vote for Sam Rayburn for Speaker?" I asked in a change of subject that startled me as much as him.

"Well, we Republicans are going to vote for Mr. Halleck (Charles A. Halleck of Indiana, House Minority Leader), Pirnie replied. "But if he doesn't win --" he smiled broadly and winked -- "I'll be happy to work with Mr. Rayburn."

Over the next couple of years, while I was still in high school, I wrote to a wide variety of politicians in Washington, primarily to see if they would write back, or to collect autographs from the President, Vice President and other notables. Pirnie was one of the politicians I wrote nearly every week -- so often that my name must have been too familiar to a harried typist who once mistyped the Congressman's signature block, "Alexander Jenks."

I joined the Air Force in 1964 and entered a period of my life where it was more important to write to old girl friends than to old congressmen, so I lost touch with Pirnie. It wasn't until December 1, 1969, when I was in my freshman year at Eastern Baptist College, that I saw Pirnie on television, reaching into a large glass jar to draw a date for the Selective Service System draft lottery that would be the birthday of the first young men called to service. The look of concentration on his face was the same look he used to give me when I'd ask him how often they raised and lowered flags over the Capitol.

Years later, in June 1982, I was attending an American Baptist meeting in Green Lake, Wis., when I read in the Milwaukee paper that former Congressman Alexander Pirnie had driven off the road in Canastota, probably after suffering a heart attack, and died.

I put the paper down and remarked, "Hey, Alexander Pirnie died." But the Baptists in the room just stared at me blankly. Pirnie was not an internationally known politician.
He was just a good one.

Al Pirnie was certainly not the last good Republican I knew. There was an era when both Republicans and Democrats seemed less partisan and more willing to keep an open mind when it came to the public interest. John Heinz, the ketchup magnate and Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, who died in a tragic aircraft accident in 1991, was a liberal who once allowed me to engage him in a long conversation on President Carter's proposed treaties to turn the Panama Canal over to Panama. Church groups supported the treaties, but Senator Heinz had not yet announced how he would vote.

"Can you give me any indication which way you'll go?" I asked.

"Not today," he said, flashing a toothy smile. "But I think you'll be pleased with my vote."

The treaties were ratified by one-vote margins in 1978 -- thanks undeniably to Heinz's affirmative vote.

The Panama Canal treaties, unpopular in their time, were the right thing to do. If Republicans were voting in airtight blocks without regard to the merits of legislation, they never would have happened.

Sadly, the spirit of bipartisan open-mindedness and the art of compromise seems to be on hiatus. Throughout the past several months, Republicans resisted the passage of health Care Reform legislation on no other apparent grounds than it would enhance the prestige of President Obama. For millions of Americans, health care reform was a no-brainer: Forty-six million Americans are uninsured. More than 9 million of them are children. More than eight out of 10 are in working families. They are our friends, neighbors and colleagues--forced to gamble every day that they won't get sick or injured. Living without health insurance is a risk no one should have to take.
End of argument.

These were not, however, the issues argued by the Republican block. And when health care was passed this week, the reaction of Republicans and their "Tea Party" supporters was appalling.

Images of "Tea Party" radicals responding to the passage of health care legislation by taunting a supporter suffering with Parkinson's disease, and shouting racial and sexual epithets at Democrats who voted for it - including Civil Rights icon John Lewis - are deeply disturbing. The fact that this boorish behavior followed months of disingenuous claims and outright lies by GOP senators and  representatives about the content of health care legislation leads millions of Americans to to the conclusion Bob Herbert reached this week in the New York Times:
"It is way past time for decent Americans to rise up against this kind of garbage, to fight it aggressively wherever it appears. And it is time for every American of good will to hold the Republican Party accountable for its role in tolerating, shielding and encouraging foul, mean-spirited and bigoted behavior in its ranks and among its strongest supporters."

Obviously, the Republican rhetoric in Congress was not about health care. It was about power. Despite their minority in both houses, their calculation was that by saying "No" to any proposal put forth by a president they have categorized as a liberal socialist, they would add Republican seats in both houses in November.

That remains to be seen.

But I would have greatly preferred a debate on health care based on the facts and based on a common understanding that 46 million Americans needed their government's help.
Any candidate that doesn't see that will never get my vote. And I pray that the spirit of bi-partisan cooperation will someday re-emerge. That will take some moderation on both sides.

Where are the thinking moderate Republicans when we need them?

Al Pirnie, won't you please come home?

1 comment:

  1. How many memories you have unleashed. My father was just such a Republican, a self-described knee-jerk liberal dove. I miss him.