Of the many wonderful lyrics John Prine has written, one of my favorites comes from “Grandpa was a Carpenter,” from Sweet Revenge. In the autobiographical recollection of his grandfather, Prine remembers that the great man “voted for Eisenhower/ ’Cause Lincoln won the war.”
John Prine performs “Grandpa was a Carpenter,” 1983
As a lover of Lincoln and other great Civil War and Reconstruction Era Republicans—Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and Robert Smalls being among my heroes—I am charmed by Prine’s portrait of his grandpa, who died in the mid-50s, before the Republican party laid Lincoln’s mantle down in pursuit of the “Southern strategy”—fostering white resentment to solidify white voters, particularly those whose economic interests would otherwise align them with Democrats.
Robert Smalls, former slave turned statesman
Ten years ago, the Republican Party issued “an empty apology,” in the words of NYT columnist Bob Herbert, for the strategy, but it never changed course. Indeed, Donald Trump’s rise to prominence relied on the racist appeals put into place decades ago—back when “Grandpa was a Carpenter” came out, in 1973, just after the re-election of Nixon, who, in the words of his Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, knew that “[t]he key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.” That is Prine’s humor–to sing, in the midst of Nixon’s brutal politics, about a man who loved Lincoln and so supported Eisenhower.
Eisenhower’s choice to run saved the nation from the worst of the Republican Party. The general was praised by Democratic leaders during World War II and by sitting president Harry S Truman, who urged him to run in the presidential races immediately after the war and was disappointed when the general chose to run as a Republican. Eisenhower, capitulating to the Draft Eisenhower movement, had chosen to run against Robert A. Taft, a conservative Republican who had worked against the New Deal and against labor and who held isolationist ideas about foreign policy. By running as Republican, he put himself into competition with Taft during the primary, insuring that Taft wouldn’t get the opportunity to be on the presidential ticket. The bitter primary race and Republican convention made clear what was at stake: the domination of the Democrats (who had been in power for decades) that would likely continue if Taft was placed on the ballot, or the possibility of the popular war hero bringing a moderate Republican party into office. Eisenhower narrowly won the primary race, setting the stage for an overwhelming victory against Adlai Stevens, who lost, for the first time since Reconstruction, a few Southern states (Florida, Texas, and Virginia) to the Republican victor.
Eisenhower’s boyhood home in Abilene, Kansas, a state that has, in the past, fostered some of the best progressive, pragmatic leadership in the nation. Not now.
But within a little more than a decade, Eisenhower’s vice-president, Richard Nixon, would dramatically reshape politics, making a vote for the Republican party an affront to the memory of Lincoln and securing the South for the GOP for a long time–though this may be changing.
In the 2016 primary, no Republican would do what Eisenhower had been willing to do—serve in order to prevent the nation from veering too far to the right. The conventional wisdom has become that the primary election is where candidates are most polarized, that they will veer more to the center post-primary, when they are no longer mostly concerned about getting out the base of voters who bother to show up for primary elections but instead want to appeal to a wider pool of voters. Eisenhower did just the opposite, bringing his party into the White House for the first time in decades because he was willing to be moderate. His moderation on issues of Civil Rights has tarnished his legacy (though he was the strongest advocate of Civil Rights since Lincoln) but that moderation also allowed him gravity when he did use presidential power, as he did when he forcibly integrated Central High School in Little Rock by federalizing the state’s national guard. In these ways, he was very much like Lincoln—committed to unity for as long as he could be, then able to use force effectively.
Today’s Republican party would be unrecognizable to Lincoln, Eisenhower, or Prine’s grandfather. This is why Trump calls up the ghosts of General George MacArthur in his warmongering speeches but not Eisenhower, saying that that MacArthur is “spinning in his grave” at America’s international leadership. But MacArthur, brash with threats of nuclear war, inconsiderate of the cost of war, dismissive of the presidency and elected office, and irresponsible with his words, is not the general we want our leaders to emulate. It’s not a surprise, though, that he’s the person Trump picks to hold up.
Lincoln, who won loyalty to the Republican party for generations, for good reasons
If Lincoln won the Republican party nearly 100 years of loyalty, Trump risks losing the party for generations. I’ve been a Republican voter, particularly in local elections where political philosophy matters less than expertise in governance. I’ve been a registered Republican as recently as the 2012 election. (Granted, this was in a region of the country where the local Democrats urged like-minded folks to register Republican to vote in the primary election for the Eisenhower-like figure, knowing that that person, not the Democrat—if one was even running—would win. In fact, it was in Kansas, Eisenhower’s birthplace, now a disaster because of Republican politicians.) But, to repay the Republican party for inflicting Donald Trump on us, I will never ever ever vote for a Republican again, not for dogcatcher or county coroner, not if his opponent is a turd sandwich. And I resent that my loyalty can’t be to a transformational figure, like Lincoln, but to my rage at a Republican party willing to sacrifice women, Muslims, African Americans, Jews, and immigrants rather than reject its own worst elements.
Just heard John Prine and that lyric for the first day and googled the meaning to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding. Your post gave me the most hope in a long time that this is a blip in the US and the good people will overcome the toxic madness of the amoral, compassionless horrors who consider themselves “THE good people”. Best wishes from Dublin, Ireland. Thanks
John Prine gives me hope many days! I’m so glad you found him–and us!