By William Fisher
When my friend Brian Foley sent me a copy of the Republican Party 1956 Platform, I had to ask him whether he was acting as a law professor (which he is) or as a stand-up comic and author of a very funny book (which he also is).
“You read it. And then you decide,” he told me. “But read it.”
OK, with such a challenge how could I refuse?
Would the platform bring me visions of Dickens’ Scrooge? Or would it be more like Florence Nightingale?
Only time would tell, so I jumped in feet first.
The GOP Platform that year was 49 pages long. I couldn’t possibly critique it all. So I decided to look at a few 1956 issues that are still issues today, and one or two issues today that seem to have been hidden in plain sight back then. That, plus stuff that just jumped off the page into my computer!
Maybe a bit of context would help the reader (maybe the writer as well). 1956 was the year our President, Dwight David Eisenhower – Ike – was running for his second term. His first term is sometimes described as “quiet” – decompressing from World War Two. But no sooner that war ended, we began the combat of the Cold War, which was expensive and also shaped the national psyche for generations to come. There was the Korean War, to which an “honorable” peace had come. There were what we then called “The Communist Chinese” – once brave allies in the hot war, now being denied by the US a seat at the UN security Council. There were, of course, the expected labor troubles, Taft-Hartley and such, and the usual ups and downs of the capital markets. The biggest worry people seemed to have back then was inflation But, by and large, these were years of pretty good prosperity for many people and years of embarrassing wealth for the very few – and, on many critical issues, a parade of ostriches whistling past the graveyard (how’s that for a mixed-up metaphor?).
So now I began my digging into the Platform and the first thing that jumped off the very first page was this: Our great President Dwight D. Eisenhower has counseled us further: "In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with people's money, or their economy, or their form of government, be conservative."
Could you find a paragraph like that in today”s GOP platform? I doubt it.
Or this one: “We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs—expansion of social security—broadened coverage in unemployment insurance —improved housing—and better health protection for all our people. We are determined that our government remain warmly responsive to the urgent social and economic problems of our people.”
Then came this bit of triumphalist rhetoric: “We have balanced the budget. We believe and will continue to prove that thrift, prudence and a sensible respect for living within income applies as surely to the management of our Government's budget as it does to the family budget.”
Funny, didn’t we believe that Bill Clinton was the first president in decades to balance the federal budget?
What the Grand Old Party really meant to say was that Ike became the first Republican in 40 years to balance a budget.
(Dwight Eisenhower was last Republican President to preside over a balanced budget. He had a balanced budget in 1956 and 1957. Since then, there have been two presidents to preside over balanced budgets, LBJ in 1969 and Clinton in 1998 through 2001. During the last 40 years there have been five budget surpluses, all five were under Democratic Presidents: 1969, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001.)
Then came a familiar meme: “We hold that the major world issue today is whether Government shall be the servant or the master of men. We hold that the Bill of Rights is the sacred foundation of personal liberty. That men are created equal needs no affirmation, but they must have equality of opportunity and protection of their civil rights under the law.”
Sure, we’re familiar with that clarion call for small government. Ike used it. Reagan patented it – “government is the problem.” Bush mouthed the words and grew the government until it collapsed.
This year, both Republicans and Democrats are trying to frame their conventions and campaigns as “choices for the voter” – government should get out of the way or government should provide a strong safety net for all Americans.
We’re also all-too-familiar with other GOP mantras, which they apparently think never wear out and need replacing. For example, the 1956 Platform pledges: “
“Gradual reduction of the national debt; further reductions in taxes with particular consideration for low and middle income families; initiation of a sound policy of tax reductions which will encourage small independent businesses to modernize and progress; continual study of additional ways to correct inequities in the effect of various taxes.”