Growing Up Liberal

Growing Up Liberal

Blood of the Liberals, from which this piece is excerpted, tells the private and public story of three generations in the twentieth century. My maternal grandfather, George Huddleston, was a populist congressman who represented Birmingham, Alabama, from 1915 to 1937. He began his career fighting the princes of wealth on behalf of the steelworkers and coal miners and dirt farmers in his district, and he ended it opposing the New Deal on behalf of Jeffersonian principles. His youngest child, my mother, married a Jewish law professor and left Alabama for the West Coast, where my father taught at Stanford. My father became an academic administrator just in time for the student revolution. In 1969, after announcing his plans to leave the administration and return to teaching, he suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed his right side. Three years later, when I was twelve, he took his own life.

I grew up during the years of liberal defeat. Every fourth November a general election came along to confirm that the ideas on which my parents had raised me were discredited. Every presidential race offered a new victim in the line of liberal losers, each more hapless than the last on his way to the chopping block: McCarthy, Humphrey, McGovern, Carter (who, after winning one election, couldn’t stop losing), Mondale, Dukakis. These years gave me the unconscious feeling that a liberal was a man in a wheelchair.

The faith of my ancestors was born two hundred years before me, in the century of Jefferson, in the philosophical creed of human liberty and self-government. A hundred years later, in my grandfather’s youth, it found a plain raspy voice in Populism and fought the princes of wealth in the name of the common man. A half-century after that, in my father’s and mother’s youth, it came to power in the modern state and made government activism its signature. A few decades after that, when I was a small boy, it ascended to the status of a cultural elite. Then, in a few short years, it ripped itself apart over the three great issues of the sixties: race, war, and student revolt. It began by speaking for all mankind, and by 1972, when George McGovern was wiped out by Richard Nixon, it spoke for Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.

My inheritance was paid in a devalued currency. By the time I entered adolescence, liberalism seemed only able to thrive in the rarefied world of college campuses and eccentric city precincts.

A quick and partial list of some of the beliefs I was raised on:

• It’s wrong to send rockets to the moon when we have problems on Earth that need money.
• Taxes should be higher for the rich and the “well-off.” Complaints about high taxes are a sign of racism and mean-spiritedness.
• Government spending on everything but defense is good.
• American military actions are suspect. So is personal display of the flag. So is the presidency.
• The cold war is a g...