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Daniel N. Nelson

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What My Father Would Have Thought About Paul Ryan

Posted: 08/14/2012 4:12 pm

Paul Ryan is from Janesville, a long, long way from Whitehall and Hixton, in Wisconsin's southwest. The southeastern side of Wisconsin is a different state from rural Wisconsin, north or west. Well, those of you who haven't been there will have to believe me on this. Think upstate New York versus close to Manhattan.

The Ryans were an important family in Janesville; my father barely survived as a farmer, and then to save himself became a CCC worker in the Depression. After returning from Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, a salesman. Not Willy Loman, but a salesman nonetheless.

My father would not have liked Paul Ryan. Were he still alive he would have wondered where the hell he got his ideas.

Of course, Ryan got his ideas from living the good life. Yes, I know his father died when Paul was 16. That is tragic. I also know that he has been an exemplary, religious, family man. But the Ryans were a family to reckon with in Janesville, a big city compared to Hixton and Whitehall. Still, let's talk policy and politics.

Often, really often, people need the help of their government. Paul Ryan denies such a governmental responsibility. My father's family, with a failed farm, livestock sold off, crops destroyed, needed help. FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided work and a subsistence income to the then 20-ish son, who worked for two years on rural projects in Wisconsin before moving to Minneapolis to find other work as a salesman before the war. Paul Ryan, of course, would have never funded CCC or any other federal program of such scope. He might have provided vouchers, and then said good luck and god speed -- you're on your own, buddy.

But my Wisconsin-born father would have asked "whose side are you on?" Well, with a Norwegian accent.

He would want to have known if Willard Romney or Paul Ryan have ever had to worry about the next meal for their families, how to pay for prescriptions, whether or not they can even find the cash for a bus.

My father died in 1988, but I sure wish he were around today. Perhaps his spirit, like the Priceline Negotiator, will return? But if he were here, he'd surely, surely say that Paul Ryan ain't no ordinary, working Wisconsinite, and probably has never seen any callouses except in an expensive gym.

For my part, I am very tired -- and so should be most Americans -- of privileged, affluent, white, male Americans saying that they should lead us, when we are not as a people like they are. This country will not be the Romney-Ryan variety in the next generation or forevermore. And this country does not need their kind of top-tiered, equestrian trotting, gym-rat leadership. I grant you that wind-surfing Democratic politicians didn't go down well either.

Yet, this is not a vanilla America of the 1950s, but rather a far more diverse America where needs to combat inequality are like the 1930s. We need leaders who have struggled with life, and who know the streets and farms and the routines of salesmen and checkout clerks. And, we also mightily require people in elected positions who grasp that government has a purpose -- to help and protect and educate citizens.

Those are the leaders my father respected.

*Daniel N. Nelson is CEO of a consulting firm in Northern Virginia, and previously served in the US Government and as an academic administrator.

 
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