When Studs Terkel was in the seventh grade, his teacher, Miss Henrietta Boone, asked the smart young whippersnapper who he was supporting in the presidential election of 1924.
“Are you for Calvin Coolidge or John W. Davis?” Miss Boone inquired, mentioning the names of the Republican and Democratic nominees.
Terkel, who had already imbibed the radicalism of Chicago’s labor left, was for neither of the major party candidates. Rather, he favored the third-party contender who was campaigning against imperialism abroad and Wall Street at home.
“Innocently–or was I damnably perverse even then?–I piped, ‘Fightin’ Bob La Follette,'” Terkel recalled eight decades later, mentioning the name of the progressive senator from Wisconsin who earned his support that year. “She was startled, poor dear. Why have I always upset such gentle hearts? Why couldn’t I have been my cute little button self and said the right thing: ‘Keep Cool with Coolidge.'”
Studs could be cute, and damnably perverse.
But the Pultizer Prize-winning author, pioneering radio personality, battler against Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism, raconteur, rabble-rouser and grand old man of the American left, who died Friday at age 96, never pulled his punches when it came to politics.
Early in 2002, as George Bush was scheming to exploit the fear of terrorism in order to steer the United States toward a new career of empire, I wrote an article for The Nation about the lonely dissents of Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.
Studs responded, as he had to La Follette’s call eighty years earlier:
“When I finished reading John Nichols’s exhilarating communiqué from California (“Kucinich Rocks the Boat,” March 25), the bells began to ring,” he wrote for The Nation. “In his speech to the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, criticizing Bush’s conduct of the war on terrorism, Dennis Kucinich set the crowd on its ear–one standing ovation after another. Sure, they were all liberals, but what counted was the response on the Internet. The Cleveland Congressman’s e-mail box was stuffed to overflowing with 20,000-plus enthusiastic letters. Among them was the call: Kucinich for President.”
“Kucinich is the man to light the fire,” Studs declared. “Amen.”
As it turned out, Kucinich didn’t get any closer to the presidency than did La Follette.
Studs was disappointed, but undaunted.
Politics was never a game for Studs. It was the work of a lifetime. He wrote brilliant books about the lives of working people not merely because their stories were fascinating but because he wanted to get a conversation started about class in America.
He wrote about “the good fight” of World War II because he wanted to remind new generations of Americans that this country had once united to battle fascism.
And he kept his sense of humor and his optimism, even when those around him despaired.
Not long after the invasion of Iraq, when President Bush was still enjoying the ill-gotten high approval ratings of his “Mission Accomplished” moment, Studs explained to me that one of the benefits of his advancing years was his pronounced loss of hearing.
“My bad hearing leads me to higher truths,” he quipped. “For instance, terms like ’embedded journalist’ come through to me as in-bed with journalist. My problem with the media right now is that we’ve got too many in-bed-with-journalists and not enough of the skeptical, questioning, challenging journalists who will hold George Bush and his boys accountable.”
For Studs, who had made his name as an incisive radio interviewer, the increasing consolidation of radio station ownership, and the homogenization that went with it, was deeply troubling. But Studs was not only concerned about the sector of media he knew best.
“Information, news, ideas–that’s the juice that gets a democracy going. When a few corporations control all the juice, they decide how the democracy works. Or how it won’t work. I don’t worry that much about people doing the right thing if they have the facts about what their government is up to. But if they don’t get the facts, the whole thing falls apart,” said the man who had spent most of his life interviewing Americans regarding their work, their ideals, their politics and, in his last years, their optimism about the prospect of making a better world.
As far as Studs was concerned, the run-up to the war in Iraq provided a perfect example of how things fall apart when the media fails to do its job. While TV news anchors pinned on flag pins and conducted fawning interviews with members of the Bush administration, the senior member of the US Senate, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, was virtually ignored as he questioned the rush to war.
“Senator Byrd has been fantastic. He’s the one guy who said ‘bugger off’ when Bush came around trying to sell the idea of this war. I think he’s the one guy who really stood up for our kids in the military, when he said he did not want them going off and invading a country that was no threat to us,” Studs said. “But Byrd got no headlines. You hardly ever saw him on television. I think that if he had, we might not be in this war today. That’s an example of what happens when the big media companies just give us the administration’s version of the news.”
Long before others dared do so, the man who immortalized the generation of Americans who fought “the good war” of the 1940s termed the Iraq War “a quagmire for America.”
“We were the most honored country in the world at the end of World War II,” he noted. “Now we’re the most loathed country. We need a media that asks: ‘What the hell are we doing there?’ “
Studs was delighted when, in 2004, a young Chicago state senator with whom he had marched on picket lines, was elected to the US Senate on an anti-war “what-the-hell-are-we-doing-there?” platform.
He followed Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency with enthusiasm. The old civil rights campaigner wanted to see an African-American elected president in his lifetime.
But he also wanted the Democrat to remember his roots as, dare we say it, a community activist. “Obama can’t be a moderate!” Studs said in one of his last interviews. “He’s got to remember where he comes from! Obama, he has got to be pushed!”
In particular, the man who well recalled the first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency wanted to make sure that Obama was pressed to promote a new New Deal.
“I’d ask Obama, do you plan to follow up on the program of the New Deal of FDR? I’d tell him, ‘Don’t fool around on a few issues, such as health care. We’ve got bigger work to do! Read FDR’s second inaugural address!'” he told a Chicago reporter. “The free market has to be regulated. And the New Deal did that and they provided jobs. The government has to. The WPA provided jobs. We have got to get back to that. We need more reg-u-la-tion.”
The truth is that we need more Studs Terkels.
There will never be another quite like him.
But as Americans of good will ponder the notion of forging a change we believe in, we would be wise not merely to recall but to emulate the disdain for moderation, the enduring progressive faith and the delighted determination to speak truth to power — from the days when he was talking up La Follette to the days when he was talking up Obama — that defined the politics and the life of Studs Terkel.