The Bell Curve: Looking back to 'fireside chats'

In the new order of things, Pilot columnists take a hike every fourth week as our contribution to the paper's freelance budget demands. Unfortunately, the news that provides grist for the columnists doesn't always happen on that schedule.

Like today. When I would have been able to fill a column last Thursday with election stuff, I was benched. So I decided to do that column anyway and turn it in on Wednesday, as I knew the editors would be immersed in election news and wouldn't notice.

Besides, it would serve as a late Halloween joke.

Well, after I wrote the column it turned out to be an idea that didn't work, so on Tuesday night I'm in my TV room at home, watching the talking heads and election numbers and taking a final despairing look at the bad joke that didn't work. The first part is about the canonization of Costa Mesa Councilwoman Wendy Leece because she cast a much-desired City Council vote under a great deal of stress that she herself caused.

And the second part is about Beth Krom, former mayor of Irvine who was running for Congress in the 48th District this day and whose political career will probably drown in the Republican tidal wave. Krom ran far and away the most professional campaign I followed. It was against an incumbent, Rep. John Campbell, whose principal duty seems to be keeping the Congressional seat warm in case the party needs him and who earned the sobriquet of "no-show Campbell" during the campaign. This is where the system breaks down outrageously, displacing competent and dedicated people with party errand boys. This will merit a column on its own another day.

But now I'm settled in my TV room at home, waiting to learn who will be our new governor and beginning to drift through the election math to other election nights that were more memorable than this one. And wondering if that feeling comes from saturation or grief. Or just from acknowledging that it's going to be a long night before California comes in and I can go to bed.

And so I drift back to the first election night I think I can remember, orchestrated to the "fireside chat" voice of a president-elect most of us didn't know was crippled with polio but who was ebullient with energy to attack the Great Depression he inherited. My family needed a lot of that hope. We had just lost our home and were packing up to follow my father to a distant state where he found work. The next three presidential election nights set a precedent that was later revoked by a law limiting presidents to two terms. The Roosevelt voice that had carried us through a war and a Depression was tired, then quiet, replaced by a Missouri politician named Harry Truman, whom the country scarcely knew. He had been a last-minute choice as vice president.

I had the beginnings of a family then and election night took on a new importance for me and for the country, too. New York Gov. Thomas Dewey took on Truman and it was several days after the election before Truman was declared the winner.

The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, was on the street with a banner headline saying: "Dewey Defeats Truman." My father framed that page and hung it in the bathroom as a reminder to a divided family. None of that fight-to-the-finish carried over to Dwight Eisenhower, who twice won easily over Adlai Stevenson and may have been the last president to adopt what he called "modern Republicanism" — a far cry from the tea party converts I'm watching this election night.

The Eisenhower years of relative domestic quiet — critics would say too quiet — were an appropriate prelude to the last few years of a country united under John Kennedy, who was the first Catholic and the youngest man ever elected to the presidency. For the first time my three kids took a powerful interest in politics, and election night turned our house into a cheering section for Kennedy, who survived a tight election and some challenges to vote counting. But once he was in office, only in World War II have I felt the sense of unity that we shared for the three years of life he had left.

Lyndon Johnson, a reluctant vice president under Kennedy, was involved in only one presidential election night over a militant, Barry Goldwater. We didn't lose any sleep over this one.

And now I have word that there's a decision on the governor, so I'll quit these reflections with gratitude that I won't have to think again about the night that the Supreme Court gave the presidency to George W. Bush — and that we're done with political campaigns for a refreshingly long while.

JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World