What Makes a Liberal? Birth or Fate or Both?

Dad's hardbitten crime reporter stare
Dad’s hardbitten crime reporter stare

“What’s a liberal?” I asked my father. We were in NYC, I was 22, and it was 1966, and I was leaving the luscious sylvan acres of my women’s college to go west of the Hudson for the first time ever, about to enter the “War on Poverty” JFK had inspired and LBJ was carrying out.

Dad, 61, was estranged from my mother and living alone in New York City. I was visiting him in the apartment he’d moved away to, half the second floor ballroom of a townhouse on the corner of 5th and 76th. He’d flourished, telling guests that FDR had married Eleanor right over there in front of that fireplace.

He shrugged, as if I should have known. “A person who cares about the ordinary folk,” he said. “Who gives back.”

“Why?” I hadn’t really read Ayn Rand , but I’d heard people talk about her, and I could sort of figure out what Howard Roark was all about. He wouldn’t have “given back.”

“Because it’s the right thing to do.” Dad leaned forward, eyes fixing mine with his film noir reporter’s stare, offered me a bit of roquefort on a Saltine, took one himself, leaned back in his chair. “Noblesse oblige,” he said.

I began staring out the window.  He was gearing up to go on about how they taught it at Choate. Yale.

But back in his mother Louise’s family even before that, I’ve come to see, they were like that, too; they seemed to have  it as a code of conduct, that the few who can make it give back to those who cannot. It makes, they would say, a better world.

But not all of them ended up like my father, a reporter who if he lived today would be somewhere in the South doing an investigative piece on what makes 2013 southern conservatives tick, the way he’d done in the late Forties for PM on Southern miscegenation fears.

I’ve decided the reason why my father turned out to be the person he did is a matter of fate, not just birth. History taught him. The Depression. World War II. Even the Fifties taught him something; they taught him to keep quiet, although not entirely. My father’s fate was to live through major events that taught him things he might not otherwise have learned.

I think I also know when my father first learned to write about big subjects. It was right after the war. From an Ohio 1920’s boom town called Toledo he’d gone to fancy Eastern schools, written endless checks on money his father had earned. Then his father died and the money stopped but he stuck with it. In New York’s Greenwich Village, among freethinking artists and intellectuals, he tried to come to terms with what it all meant. He went to war, came back lamed and angry at war’s carnage, got and then quit a good job at NBC in protest over journalistic ethics.  He’d turned serious.  He got hired at a paper where, to stay there, you had to be the best: the liberal-minded New York tabloid PM. Things began to take off. He whipped out Ralph Ingersoll-inspired Reporter at Large-style pieces with the best of them, all along shape-shifting himself into a cutting edge fighter for FDR’s “common man,” the “ordinary guy,” filing investigative stories on civil rights, freedom of the press, domestic Fascism. By the time PM folded (because it was too idealistic to make money), he was seen as one of the best reporters of his generation and made a nice hop to William Shawn’s New Yorker, where he wrote gritty profiles of criminals for “Annals of Crime.” He finished his brief walk across the stage of life with a flourish, a prizewinning biography of a major figure in American letters, the playwright Eugene O’Neill.

But back in the Sixties I didn’t really understand or care about any of this. I cared about my father as a father. I knew him as a bungler, a moaner, a charlatan; a mama’s boy and a ladies’ man. He had champagne tastes but ignored the bills; signed postdated checks that bounced.  Someone else would always be there to cook the meals, do the dishes, keep thing running. He basked when a woman made him feel like a king, but he told his daughters not to need a man for a meal ticket.

What made this guy tick, I’m writing about in a biography, CROSWELL BOWEN: A Writer’s Life, A Daughter’s Portrait. Back From Tobruk, his WWII experience as he told it, is just out from Potomac.

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6 thoughts on “What Makes a Liberal? Birth or Fate or Both?”

  1. Betsy, i always love to read your work. I am looking forward to reading your book about your father. You summed up his qualities, good and not-so- good in an amazing paragraph or so. Your basic question about makes a person a liberal or not is a good one. I have been trying to define it for a long time. My siblings and I have gone both conservative and liberal and is the basis for lots of discussions and arguments.
    Glad I am on your list! Janet

  2. Fascinating and compelling. I believe we are kindred spirits. Will more of the same be coming out?

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