Believe It or Not, Things Have Been Worse

My comrades were all atwitter on Nov. 3, predicting Armageddon and worse after John Kerry conceded defeat. One retired friend said he was so “depressed” that he was locking his doors and staying home for a few days.

But how bad was it really? So a pro-war Democrat who tap-danced his way around issues like gay marriage and national health insurance had been outmaneuvered by the evil axis of the “moral”-majority Republicans and those in Iowa worried about the next terrorist attack on the ethanol crop.

It’s important to put things in perspective and look back to a time when far scarier things have happened.

The year of my first vote, 1968, some anti-war activists were deciding whether to vote for Dick Gregory for President. (We were protesting, you see.) Luckily, I had an immigrant father who had toiled in union halls and proudly wore the label of what was once called a “yellow-dog Democrat,” meaning that he would vote for a yellow dog if it was running against a Republican. Protest in the streets, not the voting booth, he said. “Put aside your anger about the war; Nixon is a thief.” He instructed me, gently, to vote for Hubert Humphrey, which I did.

You want to know about despair? When Dr. Martin Luther King died in 1968, there was burning and looting across America. Bobby Kennedy was gunned down two months later. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were mimicking George Wallace, competing to see who could mastermind the best “Southern [white] strategy.”

Lyndon Johnson already had decided to give up the Presidency. He lied about the reasons for getting us into war, became “the Mad Bomber” and obliterated a country. Most “progressive” Democrats-then as now-were silent.

We have since survived Nixon and his Plumbers and the Christmas bombing of Cambodia. We lived through Gerald Ford telling the city to take a hike in our moment of need. Jimmy Carter made the requisite South Bronx campaign stop but did nothing to help our town rebuild.

Ronald Reagan, the “affable” charmer, was cruel in his attitudes toward cities, except the one where he opened his 1980 campaign to get across his obvious code-worded message: Philadelphia (Mississippi, not Pennsylvania).

The sainted Franklin D. Roosevelt interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. F.D.R., in fact, veered toward megalomania when he sought to “pack” the Supreme Court by expanding its membership. He appointed Hugo Black, a former K.K.K. member, as a justice. Later, Black wrote in his diary that he was afraid President Nixon might “become a dictator and cancel the 1972 elections.”

In New York, we made it through the summer of 1977, during which we endured anarchy in the streets after the blackout and the Son of Sam rampage.

We can blame the Bible-thumpers in the red states, but we have plenty of homegrown intolerance. There was little outrage when a local man of the cloth said white “interlopers” didn’t belong in Harlem. The next day, a follower burned down Freddy’s Mart, killing seven people. The minister who uttered the pernicious words was given a prime-time speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention: Al Sharpton.

A portion of the blame for the Bush victory, to quote another scribe, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, the proud residents of a blue state.

We like to fool ourselves that “moderate” Republicans like George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg will do the right thing by us, like getting the $20 billion in federal aid promised us after 9/11, even as they muck around in the right-wing politics of our local Republican party.

Democrats all over New York voted white in 1989 when a black man ran for Mayor, and they gave his opponent 80 percent of the vote in some districts-something that no previous Republican had ever managed.

Ed Koch set the standard for betraying his party in 1965 when he endorsed the patrician Republican John Lindsay for Mayor over Abe Beame, a man who’d been raised in poverty on the Lower East Side. Mr. Koch and Mr. Giuliani, who served 20 years between them, had, by design, horrible relations with blacks.

In 1969, liberal Democrats dumped their candidate for Mayor, Mario Proccaccino, and backed Lindsay because Proccaccino had the temerity to talk about law and order. It wasn’t a good time for “ethnics” to run for Mayor: Lindsay’s “moderate” deputy mayor hired a private detective in a vain effort to show that another Italian-American candidate for Mayor in 1969, Republican State Senator John Marchi, was in the Mafia.

We have managed to muddle through all these disappointments. Mr. Bush’s victory is no excuse for political paralysis and moaning for the next four years. There are 16 House seats and five Senate seats to take back two years from now.

In the words of another immigrant, former New Yorker Joel Emanuel Haggland (you might remember him as labor’s troubadour, Joe Hill): “Don’t mourn. Organize.”