His name was Louis McHenry Howe, and he was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Karl Rove.
Running through the various intemperate and seething remarks from liberal outposts at the departure of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove was a common theme. Rove, spluttered the Washington Post, was guilty of “working the anger pointsâ€¦that deepened the country’s polarizationâ€¦”
Return with me now to those transformative days of the 1930s as the Democratic Party and the fortunes of Franklin D. Roosevelt were on the rise. For 72 years, Democrats had not fared well in elections against Abraham Lincoln and his political heirs. Of the 18 elections from 1860 to 1928, Democrats had won but four. By 1932, the Great Depression, the supreme crisis of the day, was at hand. It rendered the re-election of President Herbert Hoover an impossibility, and gave FDR and Howe at long last not just the keys to the White House but the potential to set up a decades long dominance of American politics by the Democratic Party.
That FDR did so is historical fact. But how he, his top aide and their Democratic successors managed this feat is worth remembering as the much-maligned Mr. Rove makes his own departure from the White House.
Louis Howe had been at Franklin Roosevelt’s side since 1910 when FDR was first elected to the New York State Senate. Believing at once that Roosevelt was a future president of the United States, Howe, a sickly, small reporter who was frequently referred to as “gnomish,” devoted his life to the task of making FDR president — and making America a Democrat-majority country. Under his tutelage, FDR learned to, well, work the anger points. And he did it with gusto not only while Howe was alive and at his side but well after Howe’s 1936 passing.
Republicans were relentlessly portrayed as “economic royalists” and “privileged princes of economic dynasties” who wished to impose upon their fellow Americans an “industrial dictatorship.” Bluntly playing the class warfare card and openly appealing to envy, Howe saw to it that his candidate learned to toss off casual characterizations of his opponents as ” a small group (who) had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s propertyâ€¦” The answer to all of this dastardly behavior by those nasty Republicans was to not just elect and re-elect (and re-elect and re-elect) FDR and his Democratic compatriots but to slowly get Americans to OK the transfer of their rights wholesale into the hands of the federal government. A federal government run, of course, by Democrats intent on making that government bigger and bigger and bigger still.
Republicans rebelled at this portrayal to little or no avail. Fully aware that FDR’s New Deal was dependent in part on the support of die-hard Southern segregationists (FDR refused even to support an anti-lynching bill for fear of angering his supporters), they were taught an immutable lesson in just how Democrats played hardball politics.
For decades a portrait of Republicans as callous, cold-hearted, and mean spirited was painted as if by rote by Howe’s prize pupil and his political descendants. Objections drew this response from FDR: “They are unanimous in their hatred for me — and I welcome their hatred.”
None of this history makes the news these days of course. As Grover Norquist, the head of the Americans for Tax Reform accurately noted yesterday in the Post, foaming liberals are vested in calling Karl Rove names (and before him it was the late Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater followed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich) while insisting that his political victories are “divisive.” The implication, of course, is that Democratic politics are some version of, as Norquist notes, “Kumbaya.”
Louis McHenry Howe was many things. Brilliant, passionately loyal, the premiere political aide of his day, he was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s man and a liberal Democrat to his core. He most decidedly did not believe in the politics of “Kumbaya.” The idea that he was being “divisive” would have undoubtedly brought a gasping smile from a man famous for his asthma. If there is in fact such a thing as “working the anger points,” it is Louis Howe who gets the credit for transforming American politics in this fashion — not Karl Rove. FDR’s fabled young protege, Congressman Lyndon Johnson, took note of how the master worked his magic. And with the help of his own White House aide Bill Moyers saw to it that his 1964 opponent, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, was dutifully painted as a racist war monger, an unstable cowboy who was only too eager to drop nuclear weapons. In 1972 it was George McGovern’s turn, comparing President Richard Nixon to Hitler.
So what lesson have conservatives learned from Louis Howe and his Democratic Party descendants? After being beaten repeatedly for decades because of a refusal to draw the political line in the sand, conservatives learned to stop trying to be the party of what Ronald Reagan once called “pale pastels.” Most importantly, they ceased to campaign as if they were running for president of the local country club. They reached out to the natural majority of the center-right that is in fact the political governing majority of America, making plain what the differences were between liberal and conservative philosophy on issues ranging from war and peace to taxes, spending, guns and the social issues.
And they learned something else, too. As a former colleague of the late Lee Atwater, it always amazed me how so many liberals failed to recognize that Atwater was not only a skilled politician, but extraordinarily well-read. He knew his history, feeling as comfortable discussing his latest visit to a World Wrestling Federation event as he did ruminating about the politics of South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun. Quite obviously, today’s smug liberals have made the same mistake with Karl Rove. You really have to wonder if they know anything at all about Louis McHenry Howe and his transformation of the Democratic Party.
Now that Karl Rove has some time on his hands, maybe they can ask him.
Jeffrey Lord is the creator, co-founder and CEO of QubeTV, a conservative online video site. A former Reagan White House political director and author, he writes from Pennsylvania.
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