2009-01-23 / Columnists

The Progressive

Commentary By John Paul Culotta

Last year we heard of client nine. There was a governor who had a candidate five, from whom he wanted to secure a fortune. We heard of a congressman with thousands of dollars in a refrigerator. One mayor was dismissed for using his office as a love nest. Another governor had a questionable relationship with a civil service union leader. Questionable bed partners of many American politicians filled tabloid pages and the use of print ink discussing moral turpitude was excessive. And one senator sought solace in an airport rest station. We all know the word politician has a negative connotation. These politicians are the reason.

Sometimes the progressive feels our political system is so corrupt that there have never been politicians who have not used their office for self-interest and aggrandizement. Using political office to seek sexual adventure and financial gain has been part of the American republic since our founding days. We need not be shocked. At the same time, painting all American politicians with the criminal brush is not accurate. On January 2, 2009 the New York Times reported on the death of former Senator Claiborne Pell. Here was a politician to admire. He was instrumental in the Pell Grants, which helps American youth attend college. Rail service between Washington, DC and Boston was improved because of his efforts. He sponsored a treaty banning nuclear weapons on the ocean floor. We are in debt to Pell for his efforts to create the National Endowment for the Arts.

Pell's death led me to ponder the efforts of many American politicians to help the average American consumer, worker and citizen lead a better life. My thoughts went to Republican and Democratic Party stalwarts who used their political service for the common good. I will use some of my favorite American leaders as examples.

Despite his jingoistic military stance, President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican was a progressive. He advocated National Health Insurance in the early part of the last century and this nation is the last major industrial democracy without such a program. He was for the regulation of railroad rates despite his strong advocacy of the free enterprise system. He was instrumental in having the Pure Food and Drugs Act enacted. Most of us know of love of our nation's natural beauty and his conservation efforts have made him one of America's most popular presidents. He often said the courts were biased against workers and labor unions. He invited a black leader. Booker T. Washington, to dine at the White House. We should all admire this man, despite some obvious defects. Although, Theodore Roosevelt was an advocate of imperialistic military campaigns, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his efforts to negotiate peace between Russia and Japan.

Most historians evaluate Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as presidents of great stature. Both men knew the limitations and possibilities of American politics. Both men needed other men to assist them — congressmen, senators, generals, academics and businessmen. Two American politicians of the New Deal era who assisted FDR were from New York. One was a popular Republican congressman and the other a Democratic Senator. The congressman was Fiorello LaGuardia, the famous mayor and the man most Americans know as the man for whom the airport was named. That is a pity. He should be known as the man responsible for the Norris-LaGuardia Act that gave American workers the right to belong to labor unions, allowed workers to picket peacefully, and strike industries not essential to public safety.

As mayor, the city was committed to slum clearance. The senator was Robert Wagner, who, as a senator, was instrumental in legislation that established the National Labor Relations Board. In recent years worker advocates have criticized this board. We hope the board begins to serve the interests of the nation and all American workers. Wagner, an immigrant from Germany, cosponsored, with a Republican congresswoman Edith Rogers, a bill to allow 20,000 Jewish refugees under the age of 14 into the United States. This legislation was rejected in 1939. He also sponsored anti-lynching legislation that was not supported by FDR because he needed the support of southern legislators. Politics has limitations even for great men.

Dynasty has some role to play in American politics. Adams, Roosevelt, Gore, Stevenson, Lodge, Dodd, Dulles, Kennedy and Clinton are families that have given leaders to the nation. These are not the only examples. The Bush dynasty is now very tarnished. When I was a child the former president's father and grandfather was a Republican senator from Connecticut. He has been criticized for some of his questionable business activities during the Second World War. His name was Prescott Bush. Despite the criticism, I believe he is also a politician who acted in the best interests of the public. In 1947 he was the treasurer of the national campaign for Planned Parenthood. He lost an election because of the opposition of religious groups. He also was the Connecticut chairman for the United Negro College Fund in 1951. He helped establish the Peace Corps. He also supported civil rights legislation and passage of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system that helped generate the prosperity of the 1950s.

There are many more examples of politicians who need to be admired in our history. Jimmy Carter (Nobel Prize), Sargent Shriver, Al Gore (Nobel Prize), Barbara Boxer, Millicent Fenwick, George Marshall, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, to name a few. Barack Obama needs politicians of both parties to help unravel the economic mess and the foreign conflicts that endanger our safety. We need men and women of all political parties to fight for the worker, the consumer, the uninsured medical patient, the poor, the environment, and for peaceful resolution of conflict. We have examples from history. Now, the challenge is for the American politician of today.

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