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H. Brandt Ayers: Fool me twice ...

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Montgomery

To get elected in Alabama and elsewhere, you have to scare the voters with some manufactured Bogeyman from whom the clever candidate promises protection.

That was the theme of a column centered on early Alabama history last week by colleague and professional historian Hardy Jackson. His essay merits a hearty Bravo and Aaaa-men!

When the election is over and the Bogeyman has melted away and nothing special happens, the voters are left with that self-critical sinking feeling, “Darn, fooled me again; Shame on me.”

The experience leads to cynicism about the whole process,

In Alabama, where vivid monsters have been created out of thin air, blacks will rule. They’re gonna take our guns away. We’re drowning in immigrants. These fears usually are followed by a do-nothing or do-little government in Montgomery, which inspires a low-level helpless anger among voters.

The political culture in this state could be called: “Angry Resignation; I’m mad as hell but I can’t or won’t do anything about it.”

But this shadow play between candidates and voters is not exclusive to Alabama. It is as old as Rome and Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” the first handbook for crafty politicians.

In America, the threat is persistently seen as coming from the left. From Social Security to Medicare, the opposition has cried in horror, “Creeping Socialism.”

Communism and socialism have been chief Bogeymen of American politics, and neither could be more bogus. American culture is highly resistant to left-wing ideology.

Remember the swarthy young senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, in the 1950s. He had us really spooked that communists were infiltrating the State Department and would turn it into Swiss cheese … only he couldn’t keep his numbers straight.

The senator spoke on fairgrounds near my Connecticut boarding school where a slight, precocious 15-year-old senior classmate challenged him. Little Roy entered as McCarthy was claiming x-number of communists at State.

Roy piped up, “But how many have you caught, Joe?” He was seized by two Connecticut patrol officers and charged with inciting a riot. The charge was dropped, but that’s how spooked we were by a threat we now know was laughable.

Now let’s take up the menace of socialism through the career of its six-time losing candidate for president, Norman Thomas. He was a magna cum laude Princeton graduate, a pleasant-looking and highly articulate Presbyterian minister attracted to causes through the social gospel.

He found a political home in the socialist movement and quickly rose to leadership of the party. He undertook a series of political sorties running for governor, senator and assemblyman from New York, losing each race with a deadly combination of pacifism and socialism.

In his six losing campaigns for president, he was such a well-spoken and genial personality that he gained a measure of respect and affection from the other candidates.

He earned respect for his dogged persistence and his frequently aired belief that he was not the candidate of lost causes but “of causes not yet won.”

When Thomas finally retired in 1964, there was a great and well-attended gala in his honor at the Astor Hotel in New York.

Asked to deliver a kind of benediction to the faithful, the old warrior rose with some difficulty from his chair. He shuffled over to the podium, and with a palsied hand pulled the microphone to his mouth, into which he whispered … “Creeping socialism.”

In the gallant good humor of that old soldier was more than a benediction to the faithful. It was an epitaph for all those non-existent threats to voters who allow themselves to be fooled once, twice — or always?

H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.

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