Old Democrats Never Die

By Jackie Friedman

After the election of Donald Trump, I began to think about what made me the person I am today, politically speaking. Was it the ’60s? I don’t think so. While some were marching, my friends who grew up without a lot of money were busy chasing the American dream, not protesting against it. Visions of little white-shingled houses with picket fences danced in my head, and Vietnam seemed far away. I was so young. Little did I realize the impact it would have on America.

My political leanings were acquired by osmosis, through the amniotic fluid in the womb, later infused by the atmosphere that surrounded me in a family and neighborhood of first-generation Americans who championed Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. 

My parents were DEMOCRATS, all in caps, I might add. After Adlai Stevenson lost the election to Dwight Eisenhower in ’56, my dad never voted again. Self-employed, he feared losing his salary if called for jury duty. The candidates who followed never stirred him to take the chance again. Four years later, I would find my own political wunderkind.

Needless to say, like many children I followed in my parents’ footsteps and was a Democrat at a tender age, not all in caps, but a Democrat just the same. Walking home from school one day in 1956 with my friend Linda Eichorn, I had a surprising Bronx moment. As we strode up the big hill on Ogden Avenue, book bags weighing down our small frames, I saw she wore a campaign button on her coat. It read “IKE,” and I was astonished by it. 

“Your parents are voting for Eisenhower?” I said with a surprised tone — nothing negative, just sheer surprise. I had assumed the whole world was voting for Stevenson. Thus I learned that not everyone had my dad’s passionate belief in the man from Illinois with the hole in his shoe. Adlai was one step above God in my home, for my parents were sure at least that Stevenson was real. God’s existence they questioned.

And so began my long love affair with and hero worship of politicians. John Kennedy came along in 1960, just in time to replace my first hero, Roy Rogers, and his formidable horse, Trigger. Kennedy didn’t ride a horse, but the PT-109 was a good story, and he spoke to my generation. It was no small thing that his wife and I shared the same first name, Jacqueline. We even spelled it the same. They had a cute family as well. The White House was filled with promise and beautiful people. Joe Kennedy Sr. said he would sell Jack to the country like soap flakes, and the country was buying. 

On Jan. 20, 1961, my generation, the first raised on television, watched, eyes glued to screens across the country, as the nation inaugurated our new president. Snow blanketed Washington that day, as the youngest man to be elected to the presidency spoke of the torch that passed to a new generation of Americans. That generation was our parents. Only one generation before, our grandparents had seen the torch held by Miss Liberty as they came into New York Harbor on boats escaping Europe. 

Decades later, I collected political campaign buttons for the nostalgia, pinning them on stuffed teddy bears. In a dusty antiques shop in Cold Spring Harbor, I spied a small pin studded with rhinestones spelling out “IKE.” I wanted to buy that pin. It spoke of the era. But guilt overcame me. “A Kennedy Democrat can’t do that,” I told myself. The moment was reminiscent of a 1964 television commercial for Lyndon Johnson featuring a Democratic hand struggling at the voting machine. Although ambivalent, the hand just couldn’t pull the lever for Goldwater, not the hand that had voted for the assassinated Kennedy.

Several years later while at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., I found the rhinestone Ike pin sitting in a glass case encircled by other presidential campaign buttons. I could have kicked myself. “I was so stupid not to buy it when I saw it,” I said quietly to myself. “It was such a piece of history.” 

At that point in my adult years, Ike was beginning to look better to me. Maybe it was nostalgia; maybe it was the article I read in American Heritage magazine, “Why We Were Right to Like Ike.” By then I knew that he had let blustery Senator Joseph McCarthy blow himself out on national television, because Eisenhower realized if he tried to quash the blowhard, people would think Ike a Communist. Also, Eisenhower was the man who reminded us to beware of the military-industrial complex. He was the general who insisted that the liberation of concentration camps be documented in photographs to bear witness to the atrocities for history. Ike wasn’t just a golfer. As I got older and J.F.K. stood frozen in time after the assassination, Ike and I were becoming closer in age.

And then while in Connecticut, serendipity took over — I found the pin again. Oh, it wasn’t the pin, the original was in Cold Spring Harbor, but probably one made by the same manufacturer. It spoke to me. This time I was not going to let a bit of Democratic genealogy get the best of the situation. I bought the rhinestone Ike pin and pinned it to the chest of a stuffed bear, next to J.F.K. and Adlai, just above an F.D.R. button. 

Now I am not in love with politics or politicians. I am jaded and disappointed in the menu of candidates we have been served. Where have all the heroes gone? Kennedy believed public service to be an honorable profession. So much was not reported then, no soap operas about our leaders, no raunchy stories. There was raunch, but it wasn’t news on the front page. Now we know much more, and it is a cesspool of payoffs, fake news, and affairs. We are subjected to stories of liaisons, which first became a spectator sport with Bill Clinton’s exploits. Not my business. 

Can we keep the private encounters under the covers, so to speak, and concentrate on what our civil servants do for the good of the country, not for their personal satisfaction? We now know of the peccadilloes of past presidents, but as enticing as the drama is, what should be front and center is how the country is doing. As Ed Koch said, “How am I doing?” Not “How am I screwing?”

I once read that every candidate who has run since J.F.K. has run against his ghost. Still a Democrat at heart, by inheritance and by tradition, I am hoping that a new hero emerges to win next time around. But I am a grown-up now, and slightly jaded, so I will consider a hero, or heroine, who is a work in progress.

Step up, whoever you are. America is waiting. 

Jackie Friedman lives part time in East Hampton.