The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond
by Samuel G. Freedman
Simon & Schuster. 464 pp. $27.S0
On October 21,1967, Private First Class Tim Carey, a thin, bespectacled, twenty-year-old draftee from Crotonville, New York, was sent into harm’s way for the first and only time in his army service. The position he was ordered to defend, however, was not in the jungles of Vietnam but in bucolic Northern Virginia. PFC Carey and his fellow recruits from the 503rd Military Police Battalion were deployed to protect the Pentagon from 35,000 antiwar demonstrators, many of whom had been bused into Washington, D.C. from elite universities up and down the East coast.
Among those intent on “bringing the war back home,” first in the order of battle that day were “flower girls” who attempted to plant daisies and long-stemmed roses in the soldiers’ gun barrels. Then came a barrage of rocks, soup cans, and bottles. Finally there was a frontal assault into the 503rd’s line by several thousand militants. Frightened and disoriented, Tim Carey found himself engaged in hand-to-hand combat—over a war he himself was not certain America should be fighting.
Before the violence erupted, Carey had heard some of the antiwar speeches broadcast over the demonstrators’ sound system. One speaker, who Carey later learned was the comedian Dick Gregory, proclaimed that the ranks of the U.S. armed forces were now filled with “poor blacks” and “dumb whites.” More than the nauseating smell of tear gas, or the fear that gripped him, Tim Carey would always remember the tone of contempt in Gregory’s voice—that, plus his own disdain for the privileged kids with draft deferments who had their riot in the sun and then returned safely to their college dormitories.
A mea culpa. I was also at the Pentagon that day in 1967, both as an antiwar activist and as a writer for Ramparts, the flagship publication of the New Left. Although I did not quite approve of throwing bottles at twenty-year-old draftees, considering what I thought to be the overriding cause of ending the war and creating a new American history, neither did I object.
It has been a long while since I stopped believing in the causes of 1967. But not until I read the lives chronicled by Samuel Freedman in The Inheritance did I understand that in making enemies out of the likes of Tim Carey, we did indeed create a new American history. Only, it was not the one we intended.
After his discharge from the army, Tim Carey returned to Crotonville for a spell with his parents, and then went off to study at the Albany campus of the State University of New York, where he violated a longstanding family taboo and signed up with the campus Republicans. After graduating, he became a party activist, eventually landing a position as a strategist for the Republican National Committee and a top adviser to George Pataki’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign. In that capacity, he helped to engineer one of the more stinging electoral defeats suffered by modern American liberalism in recent years: the toppling of Mario Cuomo from his statehouse throne.
The tale of how and why Tim Carey broke from a legacy of New Deal liberalism and moved to the political Right is one of three personal/family odysseys “from Roosevelt to Reagan and beyond” recounted in The Inheritance. While the protest movements of the 1960’s and 70’s have been adoringly chronicled in countless books, the rank-and-file players who forced a sea-change to the Right in American politics have, up until now, remained faceless, nameless, and abused. “For all their importance,” Freedman writes,
few groups of voters have been so stripped of depth and complexity, even by the politicians who court their support. They have been ridiculed in the form of Archie Bunker. . . . They have been labeled Middle America, the Silent Majority, Joe Six-Pack, and Reagan Democrats. They have been reduced to digits in opinion polls, answers in focus groups, and buzzwords in campaign commercials.
Freedman, whose previous book was Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church,1 has thus filled a gaping hole by giving us a richly detailed portrait of the conservative revolution (or counterrevolution if you like) at the grass roots.
Tim carey was not the only newfound Republican on the Albany campus in the early 1970’s. The Inheritance also introduces us to Frank Trotta, Jr., an Italian Catholic from New Rochelle, and to Leslie Maeby, a woman of Polish-Catholic origins whose family had originally settled in Baltimore. Carey, Trotta, and Maeby’s grandparents had all arrived in this country almost penniless around the turn of the century. For the next 50 years, they and their descendants lived lives utterly typical of the ethnic constituencies at the core of the Democratic party’s urban political machine.
For millions of families like these, the Democratic party of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s meant many things. It offered acceptance, empowerment, and opportunity, accompanied by an ethic of individual responsibility. And it also provided tangible benefits. Of these, most important were the jobs—sometimes patronage, sometimes in public works, sometimes in private-sector employment spurred by government spending. Thus, Tim Carey’s grandmother, Lizzie Garrett, saved from the ravages of the Great Depression by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, became a Democratic party committeewoman. Frank Trotta’s grandfather, Silvia Burgio, an uneducated laborer, fought his way into the plumbers’ union and rose to the position of secretary of his local. Leslie Maeby’s grandfather, Joseph Obrycki, was a ward-heeler for the Democratic machine in the Polish working-class neighborhood of Baltimore.
In those decades, Democratic dominance could also mean finding an affordable place to live in publicly subsidized housing, one of the party’s proudest achievements. Being accepted into public housing was considered a privilege, in exchange for which residents took on certain obligations: keeping their apartments clean and orderly, refraining from immoral conduct, and helping to keep the place free of crime. A good number of residents saved their money and eventually were able to purchase homes and move on, leaving the low-rent apartments available for other families in need.
But nothing better illustrates the growing disillusionment and cynicism so many working-class Democrats eventually came to feel toward the welfare state than the changes in this cherished program. When, for instance, the Hartley Houses went up in New Rochelle in 1949, Frank Trotta, Jr.’s father was able to get a job as a custodian and repairman. Beginning in the 1960’s, however, the Hartley Houses entered into a steady deterioration, much of it attributable directly and indirectly to the shifting nature of welfare-state liberalism.
Within a decade of the day Frank Trotta, Sr. reported to work, the social contract that had made the Hartley Houses a decent place to live lay in tatters. Tenants no longer maintained their apartments; graffiti defaced the building; young women were having babies out of wedlock and becoming permanent wards of the welfare system. And when the management attempted to exercise its authority and restore a semblance of order for the good of all, it found itself blocked by Legal Services lawyers paid by taxpayer funds and abetted by activist judges dispensing a new and ever more expansive set of rights.
Frank Trotta, Jr. saw the changes in the Hartley Houses up close through his father’s eyes and it affected him much as Tim Carey was affected by his searing experience on the steps of the Pentagon. In Freedman’s words, the Hartley Houses had been transformed “from a symbol of activist government assisting the worthy to an emblem of incompetent government indulging the worthless.” The agency presiding over that transformation—namely, the Democratic party—could no longer count on the allegiance of the Trotta family.
Like many of their opposite numbers in the New Left, Tim Carey, Frank Trotta, Jr., and Leslie Maeby (whose family traced a similar path) entered political life out of a deep concern for the future of their country and a desire to gain some control over decisions affecting their lives. Unlike so many of their contemporaries, however, they never took to the streets or contemplated violence; instead, in response to injustice and injury, all three took their passions into the political process, becoming Republican-party activists. Trotta worked as counsel for Lewis Lehrman’s 1982 campaign for governor and is now in private law practice. Maeby and Carey both now have high-level positions in the Pataki administration.
Among them, these three typify the political choices made by vast numbers of Americans who first in 1980 and then in 1984 found their champion in Ronald Reagan, and who today are still looking for his successor. Back in the 1960’s, we radicals were fond of repeating the mantra that “the personal is political.” As Samuel Freedman shows in a book written with a reporter’s eye for detail and a novelist’s understanding of human character, the truth embedded in that slogan proved to be a sword that cut two ways.
1 Reviewed in COMMENTARY by Glenn Loury, May 1993.