Monday, December 8, 2008

A History Book for Obama

by Norman Markowitz

President Barack Obama likes to read and likes serious history. On Saturday he called for a major federal investment in the rebuilding of the American infrastructure invoking Dwight Eisenhower's support for the Federal Highways Act(1956) as his model, but stating that this investment would produce millions of jobs. Obama also repeated directly the words of Franklin Roosevelt when he said that what was needed was "action and action now."

It has been suggested that Obama's use of Eisenhower and the construction of the Interstate Highway system was good politics, politics to disarm the Republicans, and that may very well be true. But I would suggest that President Elect Obama read Nick Taylor, American Made: The Enduring History of the WPA: When FDR put the Nation to Work (New York:Bantam Books:2008) 630 pp

Taylor has written an accessible and eloquent account of the most successful public employment undertaking in U.S. history. American Made dispels the long nurtured rightwing mythology that public employment is ipso facto inferior to private employment, showing that the PA not only provided jobs for millions of unemployed Americans but also made a huge contribution to the the wartime and postwar history of the United States. Like liberals of the past, sadly, Taylor doesn't give the CPUSA and its activists their due, preferring to see majority Communists ("Stalinists") and their opponents ("Trotskyites") engaged in futile pamphlet wars with each other, ignoring the central role of CPUSA activists in the popular front period of both winning support for and fighting to expand New Deal programs. But he does focus on the role that red-baiting played in the attacks and eventual dismantling of the WPA, the role of HUAC in advocating purges of the organization and the sinister alliance of military men with HUAC and other reactionary politicians in equating Communist activists with German American Bundists to purge the organization(prefiguring the "Red Fascist" totalitarian equation which was used to destroy the Center-Left New Deal coalition after WWII.

His conclusions are these: Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins believed that people given a job to do would do it well, and the fact that their paychecks were issued by the government would not make a whit of difference. They were right.. The workers of the WPA excelled. They shone. They created works that even without restoration have lasted for more than seventy years, art that is admired, research that is relied upon, infrastructure that endures. They clothe the the threadbare, fed the hungry, taught the illiterate, inoculated the vulnerable. They turned toys that were rich children's discards into poor children's treasures. They fought floods and hurricanes and forest fires with bravery...."(p530)

Taylor contends that a WPA program of similar dimensions is not conceivable today,"despite circumstances such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in which it is possible to imagine the benefits of a vast labor force mobilized by a committed government."(p. 529)

But that was all before they looming global depression and the Obama election. The WPA is a model of achievement that goes far beyond the Interstate Highway program of the 1950s and cost far less, a program that doesn't bring with it the negative anti-public transportation and dubious environmental aspects of the highway program. If Obama reads American Made, he will meet the remarkable people of the New Deal, those who constitute the only serious role model for his administration and himself in this time of crisis.