(Picture: Wikimedia Commons)
One of the very best almost-presidents was Henry Wallace (1888-1965) – and he came much, much closer than most.
‘Born into a wealthy Iowa farming family, Wallace hadn’t had the working-class background of a Bernie Sanders or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. But he certainly had the political instinct for compassion and social justice.
During the 1920s, he rose to prominence lobbying for federal relief to poor farmers which was consistently denied by the traditionally progressive Republican Party.
This led him, in 1932, to switch over to the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt, which was promising America a New Deal in the wake of the Wall Street Crash.
Thankfully, Roosevelt won and he made Wallace his Secretary of Agriculture.
In 1940, after years of steadfast support for FDR’s New Deal, Roosevelt chose Wallace to be his new running mate. Wallace then served four years as Vice-President of the United States from 1941-5.
Henry Wallace was one of the most progressive members of Roosevelt’s administration.’
‘Championing economic democracy and internationalism, he said,
“Some have spoken of the ‘American Century’. I say that the century on which we are entering – the century which will come into being after this war – can be and must be the century of the common man… No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations. Older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the path to industrialisation, but there must be neither military nor economic imperialism.”
As Secretary of Agriculture, he spearheaded the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 which used federal intervention to boost the price of farm goods to support the embattled rural economy.
Wallace also backed FDR’s effort to take on the fascist powers from the late-thirties onward, denouncing Nazi racial theory as a “mumbo-jumbo of dangerous nonsense”.
Wallace made the role of VP more dynamic than it had ever been.
He led the Democratic presidential campaign of 1940 from the front before playing a crucial role in the wartime government as chair of Roosevelt’s Board of Economic Warfare.
On 8th May 1942, Wallace gave the most remarkable speech ever given by a US President or Vice-President.
Scared of Wallace’s progressive beliefs – his anti-imperialism, his commitment to economic justice, and, especially, his open opposition to Jim Crow – the Democratic establishment pushed him off the ballot in 1944, replacing him with the hapless conservative, Harry Truman, all against the wishes of the Democrats’ base.
The post-war period might have gone much better – for America and the world – had Wallace succeeded Roosevelt in 1945 rather than the trigger-happy and hawkish Truman.
While our immediate priority is to kick its current resident out at the ballot box, the story of Henry Wallace shows that the White House needn’t be a home to scandal, incompetence, and prejudice.
One day, perhaps, we could install someone like Wallace and make the Presidency an institution of virtue and vision like it has so rarely been before.’
~Pete, Radical Tea Towel
Eugene Victor “Gene” Debs was an American socialist, political activist, trade unionist, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World and five times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America for President of the United States. Debs was noted for his oratory, and his speech denouncing American participation in WWI led to his second arrest in 1918. He was convicted under the Sedition Act of 1918 and sentenced to a term of 10 years. (His first arrest was related to the railroad and union/strike activities.) President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence in December 1921. Debs died in 1926, not long after being admitted to a sanatorium due to cardiovascular problems that developed during his time in prison.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
-W.B. Yeats, 1919.
The poem, The Second Coming, was written in 1919 post WWI and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence following the Easter Rising.
Eugene Debs started as a railroad worker and quickly became President of the American Railway Union, the first industrial union in the US, which he helped found. He led a boycott against handling trains with Pullman cars in what became the nationwide Pullman Strike; this granted him a six month sentence in prison for defying a court injunction against the strike.
Debs ran as a Socialist candidate for President of the United States five times, between 1900 and 1920, the last time from a prison cell.
“What is socialism? Merely Christianity in action. It recognizes the equality in men.”
The New Yorker Eugene V. Debs and the Endurance of Socialism/Half man, half myth, Debs turned a radical creed into a deeply American one.
Every man who worked on the American railroad in the last decades of the nineteenth century became, of necessity, a scholar of the relations between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the masters and the slaves, the riders and the ridden upon. No student of this subject is more important to American history than Debs, half man, half myth, who founded the American Railway Union, turned that into the Social Democratic Party, and ran for President of the United States five times, including once from prison.
Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855, seven years after Marx and Engels published “The Communist Manifesto.”
In a new book, “Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography” (Verso), drawn by Noah Van Sciver and written by Paul Buhle and Steve Max, Debs looks like an R. Crumb character, though not so bedraggled and neurotic.
People could listen to him talk for hours. “Debs! Debs! Debs!” they’d cry, when his train pulled into a station. Crowds massed to hear him by the tens of thousands. But even though Debs lived until 1926, well into the age of archival sound, no one has ever found a recording of his voice. When Nick Salvatore wrote, in his comprehensive biography, “Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist,” in 1982, “His voice ran a gamut of tones: mock whisper to normal conversation to full stentorian power,” you wonder how he knew. Debs could speak French and German and was raised in the Midwest, so maybe he talked like the Ohio-born Clarence Darrow, with a rasp and a drawl. Some of Debs’s early essays and speeches have just been published in the first of six volumes of “The Selected Works of Eugene V. Debs” (Haymarket), edited by Tim Davenport and David Walters. Really, he wasn’t much of a writer. The most delightful way to hear Debs is to listen to a recording made in 1979 by Bernie Sanders, in an audio documentary that he wrote and produced when he was thirty-seven years old and was the director of the American People’s Historical Society, in Burlington, Vermont, two years before he became that city’s mayor. In the documentary—available on YouTube and Spotify—Sanders, the Brooklyn-born son of a Polish Jew, performs parts of Debs’s most famous speeches, sounding, more or less, like Larry David. It is not to be missed.
“A new kind of left-wing doctrine is emerging,” The Economist writes in its lead article [AXIOS]:
- 28 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “socialism is back in fashion.”
- “In America Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a newly elected congresswoman who calls herself a democratic socialist, has become a sensation even as the growing field of Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 veers left. In Britain Jeremy Corbyn, the hardline leader of the Labour Party, could yet win the keys to 10 Downing Street.”
- “Whereas politicians on the right have all too often given up the battle of ideas and retreated towards chauvinism and nostalgia, the left has focused on inequality, the environment, and how to vest power in citizens rather than elites.”
“Socialism is storming back because it has formed an incisive critique of what has gone wrong in Western societies.”