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Echoes of a Nobler Era : Oral histories from a generation of activists show how far nation has drifted from New Deal values : COMING OF AGE: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It, <i> By Studs Terkel (The New Press: $25; 468 pp.)</i>

<i> Samuel G. Freedman is the author of "Small Victories" and "Upon This Rock."</i>

Early in this volume of oral histories, Studs Terkel introduces a labor lawyer named Ernest Goodman. Nearing 90 and reliant on a hearing aid, Goodman recalls a lifetime of political activism, stretching from the organizing drives of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s through the civil rights movement’s Freedom Summer of 1964. Then, toward the end of the interview, Goodman casts his gaze down 30 stories from his office in a Detroit skyscraper to Cadillac Square, and issues a sort of eulogy:

“That was the place, on Labor Day, where the Democratic candidates for President would open the campaign,” he says. “I remember the first two appearances for Roosevelt. The crowds were so enormous, the whole square from one end to another jammed. You couldn’t move. The cheers, God, those cheers. Now it’s empty. . . .

“The emptiness of Cadillac Square is a metaphor for the changes that have taken place in our economy and society. See the old County Building at the end of the square? It was built in 1898. There was a stool in front of it, so the person standing on it could exercise free speech. Trying to exercise that right, you’d get arrested as easily as not. After all the battles were over, the stool remained as a symbol: the stool on which you could stand and speak to the masses below. But there are no masses anymore. There’s nobody.”

The passion in Goodman’s voice and the sureness in his grasp of history cannot fail to move a reader, at least a reader of such political sympathies as mine. Who among those Americans who believe in social and economic justice cannot mourn the passing of the great causes? Who cannot feel shame and impotence at seeing the ragtag remnants of the New Deal coalition embarked on the most dispirited retreat this side of the Trail of Tears?

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Certainly, Terkel has ensured that this book resonates with the pride and regret of those who by both age and political disposition form the Old Left. He has populated the anthology with 70 men and women older than 70, and almost to the one they came to political enlightenment--class consciousness--during the Great Depression. They despair less over the physical infirmities of their dotage, or even the onslaught of technology, than the nation’s shift to the political right.

Genora Johnson Dollinger, an 80-year-old veteran of the United Auto Workers’ famous sit-down strike in Flint, Mich., offers an emblematic perspective:

“That period was the high point of my life. It was the time of the Depression, when working people had a feeling for each other. We helped each other out in times of trouble. It was a time that most people never get a chance to live through. We started to organize against hunger, poverty, sickness, everything that’s hard. We were just at the point where so many of us decided we’d rather die first before we’d ever go back to being non-union scabs. A little different from today, I’m afraid.”

Such sentiments, however, actually lose their force over the course of “Coming of Age.” For Terkel, in the interest of making a political point, has chosen oral histories of such ideological sameness that the book grows repetitious. The sort of farmer one meets in these pages discourses on the Sherman Antitrust Act. The sort of doctor one encounters here belongs to Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Coming of Age” finds room for a Pentagon whistle-blower, militant atheist, war-tax resister, anti-nuclear protester--but barely an identifiable conservative.

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I am hardly suggesting that Terkel owes the reader an equal number of Reaganites to balance out his Rooseveltites, but “the story of our century,” to use the subtitle’s own phrase, is in large part the story of the metamorphosis of yesteryear’s New Deal Democrats into today’s Republicans. By essentially ignoring the phenomenon, by refusing to listen to his antagonists, Terkel becomes a less effective advocate for liberalism.

A few months ago, another collection of oral histories appeared, and it offers an instructive contrast. Griffin Fariello’s “Red Scare” made no secret of its sympathy with the victims of the anti-communist crusade of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Yet Fariello trusted the strength of his argument enough to include more than victims alone in his cast. Informers and investigators, in fact, contributed some of the most gripping testimonies of all. His book profited from a sensation absent in these pages: the dramatic tension that grows between foes.

Which is not to say that “Coming of Age” is entirely predictable. A former radio producer cracks, “The kind of obituary I would like is short: ‘Norman Corwin, age 124, was killed yesterday in a duel with a jealous lover. His gun jammed.’ ” A woman named Esther Thompson says of herself and her husband of 40-plus years. “When we ain’t fighting, we argue.” At the other end of the emotional spectrum, a retired police captain who is black speaks with palpable agony of feeling the alternating pulls of race and job:

“I guess I’m becoming more of a stoic than anything else. To worry over things you have no control over causes the pain to be greater. I don’t cry easily, but the things I saw. . . I’d drive down my district--projects, crowded, close living. I’d see young girls, 14, 15 years old, on drugs, trying to pick up cars on the street. I’d have an unmarked car, I’d ride around, talk to them, let ‘em out. Just to see what was on their minds. Nowhere to turn, nowhere to go. Working for slick pimps, selling out their community. Some white officer, from another neighborhood, who doesn’t identify with you, he thinks you’re not even human, thinks that’s your way of life. [Holds back a sudden sob.] Sometimes I’d sit in my office and break out in tears, man. I couldn’t take it.”

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Clearly, a self-described stoic does not unburden himself to just any visitor. Studs Terkel, even in his 80s, even having conducted 9,000 other interviews, has refused to let his own craft atrophy. His oral histories amount to an archive of “history from below.” Yet this latest volume suffers from a failure of vision that has nothing to do with poor eyesight, a hardness of hearing that cannot be remedied by an electric aid.


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