Chicagoans Studs Terkel and Barack Obama (and the Election of 2008)

12/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Steinbeck's widow asked Studs Terkel to write an introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Grapes of Wrath. And while he was working on it Robert F. Kennedy's eldest son, then Congressman Joe Kennedy, called Terkel to come to Iowa and see for himself the plight of American farmers. "Here it is the 1980s," Terkel wrote in his memoir, Touch and Go, "and you've got farmers who are starving. You saw the Depression in the Iowa countryside; the topsoil worn out, dust, towns with FOR SALE signs everywhere. . . . But never once did you hear the word 'Reaganville' in the eighties as you heard 'Hooverville' in the thirties." (p. 133) No one described life in America better than Studs Terkel because he let the people who lived it speak for themselves, and because he always knew which side he was on.

The Barack Obama campaign logo looks to me like a rising sun meant to connote rebirth, national renewal, and hope. And I believe Obama's fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel's sense of social justice, basic human decency, and compassion for the least fortunate among us is long overdue for its own rebirth and renewal. "I felt hopeful with the New Deal," Terkel writes. "During the Great Depression there was a feeling of despair. The people we had chosen to lead us out, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Eleanor, and the colleagues they chose, advocated governmental intervention as the free market fell on its ass. That gave me hope." (p. 129) Terkel, one of America's greatest story tellers and oral historians, spent most of his 96 years fighting for the rights of ordinary people to participate in their nation's politics. He was a leader of Henry Wallace's Progressive Party, defended friends like Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger against anti-Communist mudslinging, and fought against racial segregation in the Jim Crow South and against racial discrimination in the rest of the country, especially in Chicago. He was a tireless advocate for peace and social justice, and a vociferous opponent of American imperial hubris.

In the spirit of Studs Terkel I believe Obama has started something rolling in this country. Far from just "rhetoric" or "campaign promises," Obama has inspired a sizeable chunk of the electorate with a message of hope, renewal and social justice that is consistent with how this nation has responded to past crises.

But it is worrisome what the Bush Administration has wrought in the spirit of the American electorate: A people so traumatized and demoralized from past abuses that millions of our fellow citizens no longer believe that a free and fair national election in the United States is even possible anymore. One major difference between pre-Bush America and post-Bush America is that in the pre-Bush era people used to take for granted that our national elections were not rigged. Not anymore.

And for good reason.

In 2006, Bush's Justice Department was deeply involved in voter suppression activities and staged phony legal challenges and "investigations" aimed at punishing Democratic candidates and hiding Republican malfeasance.

Bush's State Department also engaged in "oppo" research on Obama delving deeply into his Passport records in search of anything that could be used against him.

Bush's Federal Bureau of Investigation "leaked" to the press that it was "investigating" the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) to determine if "voter registration fraud," a current favorite of the Far Right, has been committed in Obama's behalf.

Most recently, Bush's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) leaked to the press that Obama's aunt from Kenya, Zeituni Onyango, is living in Boston without having filed the proper asylum papers; the leak was unethical and clearly politically motivated.

And why didn't Bush's Justice Department bring federal charges against the three white supremacists in Colorado who plotted to assassinate Obama at the Denver convention? Apparently, Colorado's U.S. attorney Troy Eid, who was appointed by Bush in 2006 at the urging of Karl Rove, bucked the federal statute covering threats against presidential candidates. Whatever his motive, Mr. Eid, who was once a good friend of Jack Abramoff, sent a terrible signal to would-be assassins: Plot all you like and don't worry about the feds. (I think it might be safe to conclude that Mr. Eid, along with the Republican Secretary of State, Mike Coffman, are going to try to rig the Colorado election so it goes McCain's way on Tuesday.)

It looks like a pattern: Could it be that the Bush Justice Department under Attorney General Michael Mukasey is trying to help John McCain win the election? And if so, how far are the "Loyal Bushies" willing to go?

I wouldn't put anything past these guys because they have a proven track record: They led the country into war on false pretenses; approved torture and illegal surveillance; held prisoners without due process; issued unconstitutional "signing statements"; planted phony news stories in the press; lost a major American city to a natural disaster; and collapsed the world's financial system by turning the regulatory agencies over to a bunch of white collar criminals. With members of the Bush Administration we always seem to find out later that they were involved in actions that are far, far worse than anything we originally believed.

My guess is that the Bush people are so fearful that the extent of their criminality over the past eight years will be exposed if they lose the election they are willing to do anything to keep "friendlies" in power.

That's why we need more than just "hope" this time around. We need to fight them tooth and nail and reject the stories, blandly accepted by the corporate media, that all of the opinion polls and exit polls "got it wrong," and we're seeing "normal" voting irregularities, and it's the "Bradley Effect," and let's call in the Supreme Court, and all of the other mumbo jumbo like we heard in 2000 and 2004.

Tomorrow night we should know early on who the real winner of this election will be.

And if it's not settled by late tomorrow night?

Well, then, we should tie this country up in knots and shut down the whole goddamned thing until we sort it out with a fair and just conclusion!

Not This Time!

With hope, the election of 2008 will not be rigged, and President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress can seize the moment to enact legislation relating broadly to Reform (re-regulating the laissez-faire economy), Relief (helping those most in need) and Recovery (jump starting the economy before deflationary pressures build). It took FDR two terms to institutionalize his New Deal programs. Facing a similar economic meltdown today, the new government will need at least one presidential term to begin to fix this mess (if it can be fixed) and then another to institutionalize a "New New Deal."

After what we've been through these past eight years we are in dire need of a new social compact in this country. We need to dig deeper into our history and our culture and find what is good and charitable in the American spirit -- That same good and charitable spirit that Studs Terkel dedicated his long life to passing on to the next generation.