Long night’s journey into day

By Burt Prelutsky

People often ask me just exactly when I stopped being a liberal and, depending on their own political persuasion, saw the light or sold my soul to the devil. My fellow conservatives assume I had something akin to an epiphany. Liberals simply wonder if I suffered a head injury in a traffic accident.

When I fail to come up with anything specific, I can invariably read disappointment in their eyes. The truth is that it was a fairly gradual process. I grew up in a typical middle-class Jewish home, the third son of Russian immigrant parents. In other words, FDR was our patron saint. In our house, the feeling was that Roosevelt could walk – or at least roll – on water. Then, after his death, when Harry Truman recognized the state of Israel in 1948, that cinched things. After that, if the Republicans had run God for president, we wouldn’t have voted for Him.

So, by the time I got to cast a vote in my first presidential election in 1964, naturally I cast it for Lyndon Johnson. Then, in ’68, I voted for Hubert Humphrey. After that, things only got worse. Over the course of the next two decades, I actually voted for McGovern, Carter, Carter, Mondale and Dukakis. I would say that sounds like the name of a sleazy law firm, but that would be unfair to sleazy law firms. The thing is, even back then, I’d wake up the day after voting for one of these clowns and I’d hate myself.

Back in the ’80s, I was still one of those shmoes who laughed at jokes about Ronald Reagan nodding off during Cabinet meetings. Somewhere along the line, though, it began to sink in that the sleepyhead had managed to turn around an economy that had a 21 percent rate of inflation under his predecessor, and, for an encore, managed to end the Cold War. Even a dope like me who had voted for a sanctimonious phony like Jimmy Carter had to admit that was a pretty sensational performance. It turned out that the actor had finally found the right role.

Then, in the early 1990s, two things happened that convinced me that I could no longer vote Democratic or identify myself as a liberal, even if it meant that my relatives were going to start spinning in their graves. I could only hope that, were they still alive, they would have felt that being a liberal no longer meant you opposed the poll tax and segregated lunch counters, but that you were blindly beholden to well-heeled defense attorneys, the morally bankrupt American Civil Liberties Union and the self-serving likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Maxine Waters.

From 1987-1991, I served on the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America. It was my first hands-on experience in the political arena. I think it’s safe to say that of the three officers and 16 board members, virtually all of us were registered Democrats. A handful of the older members had been blacklisted 40 years earlier because they’d been communists. Nearly everyone in the boardroom, I should hasten to say, was a nice, decent, at least fairly intelligent human being. There were certainly no more than four or five whom I would have gladly fed to the sharks.

Because the agonizing six-month strike of 1988 took place during my first term in office, I had seen my colleagues at their best and at their worst. But it wasn’t until one of my last days in office that I realized how far apart I was from the others. The way the bylaws of the WGA were written, the board could, without putting it to a vote of the membership, elect to bestow sums up to $5,000 to any cause we felt deserving of our largesse.

On this occasion, the defense attorneys for photographer Robert Mapplethorpe had contacted us, requesting that the Guild sign on as amicus curiae in the pornography case that had recently been filed against their client.

Mapplethorpe, in case his name has slipped your mind, had received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts over the strong objections of North Carolina’s Sen. Jesse Helms. The senator felt that the U.S. government had no business subsidizing a man who devoted his career to photographing naked children. Naturally, in elite circles, that made Sen. Helms a buffoon, a lunkhead, a Southern rube who couldn’t tell the difference between a pedophile and an artiste.

When it came time to take a vote that night at the Guild, I was the only person who spoke out against supporting Mapplethorpe legally or financially. In the first place, I never thought the federal government had any business supporting the arts with even a single dollar of tax funds. There were even back then about 250 million Americans. I figured if an artist couldn’t appeal to a sufficient number of that many people to earn an honest living, it wasn’t a federal subsidy he required, but vocational guidance.

In the second place, I didn’t think the WGA should be wasting the hard-earned money of its members supporting the artistic freedom of some creep who could only have his creative vision satisfied by having an 8- or 9-year-old child stripped down and posed for his camera.

That night, when I was outvoted 15-1, I clearly saw the enormous gulf that separated me from the liberals in the room. It wasn’t simply that we disagreed about whether or not to support this guy, either. It was the fact that they didn’t even need to consider what I was saying. It was enough that the ACLU was on Mapplethorpe’s side and a Southern reactionary was opposed. That was really all they needed to know.

The second thing that turned me into a raging Republican? That’s easy. After naturally assuming that the Democrats couldn’t possibly do any worse after selecting Michael Dukakis to be their standard-bearer in 1988, they accomplished that seemingly impossible feat in 1992 by nominating Hillary Rodham Clinton’s husband.