The Republican Party of Mr. M, my parents’ 94-year-old neighbor, and of novelist Henry W. Clune no longer exists. This became clear to me while talking to Mr. M in the garden he has kept since before the Flood. He cut some rhubarb stalks and remembered his 20th birthday, on Armistice Day, 1918. He was not enthusiastic about the First World War. “That was one maybe we shoulda stayed out of,” I offered. “We shoulda stayed out of them all,” said Mr. M, a rock-ribbed Republican and Scots-American and Methodist, in roughly that order. Mr. M ran the YMCA for many years and, befitting his position, was a stalwart of the local GOP. A gymnasium and a Sunday School class are named for him.
“I’m worried about this thing in Bosnia,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow. (He’d been weeding for two hours under a springtime sun before I came along.) “We always get into these wars. None of our business. Why don’t we just stay over here and let them take care of over there. Don’t send ’em money, nothing.” Mr. M volunteered that he’d voted for Bush in 1992 but regretted it; he was eager to vote for “this guy Perot” next time, when he will be 97, a year older than the century.
The novelist Henry W. Clune, Mr, M’s senior at 103, was similarly vexed by the war drums when I saw him the next day. “It’s stupidity,” he said, sipping his martini. “I’m like Fred Allen: I’d resign from the human race if I could get my membership fee refunded. We’re trying to police the world when we can’t even police our own streets.”
Henry is a Main Street Republican who cast his first vote for William Howard Taft. He became disaligned in the 1960’s, when he denounced the Vietnam War as an “obscene enterprise” in his Gannett newspaper column. He was for normalcy in 1920 and America First in 1940 and peace in 1966. Naturally.
Democrats, for the zillionth time since Woodrow Wilson, are entangling us in military involvements that Middle America does not want. But there is no La Follette, no Borah, no Robert Taft to represent what Sinclair Lewis called the Mind Your Own Business Party. The GOP leadership, which for 12 years rubber- stamped the Rathole Patrol’s adventures in Grenada, Kuwait, Panama, Nicaragua, and other exotic places of no conceivable interest to any normal American, is scarcely in a position to criticize Bill Clinton for his expansive definition of our vital interests. A Republican Party that dishonors its elders (excepting the Bel Air Gold War liberal who bankrupted our country), that ignores the wise counsel of older patriots, that is led by a cadre of imperialists and hustlers and belligerent draft-dodgers, deserves its current low state. Venerable Republicans who still place America First have more in common with the Congressional Black Caucus than with the America Last gang of Kemp and Bennett and Cheney.
In the aftermath of Mr. Wilson’s war to end all wars, Republican Senator Hiram Johnson said he feared that internationalism would kill what he called “the creed of my manhood”: “American ideals, American principles, and American patriotism.” Mr. Clinton’s meddling in the Balkans, Africa, and the Carribean will have the same casualties, only we have no Hiram Johnson to mourn the dead. We have no Republican Party to speak for Main Street. We are blessed, however, with a remnant of extraordinary men who remember what America used to be, because they built it, they grew it, they wrote it, and for them, at least, it will never die.