General Stilwell’s Lesson for Liberals

“We took a helluva beating,” the late great General Joseph Stillwell groused on marching his malarial, worn-out, battle-weary troops out of the jungle in the China-India-Burma theatre during World War Two. His grimly realistic assessment of how the Japanese defeated his GIs did not endear him to the War Department bureaucrats who found a way to sideline him for the rest of the war. (For a brief time he was my commanding officer.) But Stillwell’s sobering view of how best to defeat the enemy contributed significantly, in the long run, to Allied victory.

Kerry voters need General Stillwell right now. Someone bracing and un-b.s.-able who won’t ladle out twaddle about hope, new beginnings and ‘it’s time to begin the healing”, as Kerry told his supporters in his Faneuil Hall concession speech. Personally, I was dismayed that Kerry and the Democratic Party establishment, after vowing to “count every vote and make every vote count”, so hastily threw in the towel before all the votes had been processed in Ohio (among other places). It was not Kerry and the Party’s decision to make. His candidacy would never have gotten off the ground if not for the amazing groundswell of enthusiasm and hands-on help he got from ‘the troops’, the men and women, boys and girls, who gave themselves heart and soul to his campaign. What arrogance! As if Kerry, not we, were the driving force.

I am a sore loser by nature. After watching the Republican smear job on Kerry – and by extension any critic of the President’s policies – I see no reason to be more than minimally polite. To hell with graciousness. What did that ever get us, in Gore’s 2000 and this year, except another kick in the groin? Ever since this year’s party primaries Karl Rove and his bat-cave minions have counted heavily on our decency and forbearance and good taste – all marks of the good liberal, or so it’s said. This licensed the Bush-Cheney-Rove machine to go for the jugular, implying that liberals were Godless friends of the terrorists or, worse, tax-raisers.

Why be polite? Disrespect for conventional thinking may have lost ‘Vinegar’ Joe Stillwell his job but in the end got America its victory. There was a time when the word liberal meant fighting liberal – loud, abrasive, forthright and intolerant of cant, the latest example being “moral values”. On almost all sides we are now told we lost because we lacked religious conviction. The poll-and-focus-group-driven architects of Kerry’s defeat, such as the Democratic Leadership Council’s Al From and others, now hasten us to more losses by demanding, “We’ve got to close the cultural gap”. Those are code words for Republicanizing the Democratic Party and de-gutting its liberal wing – a sure fire way, if history is a guide, to total disaster.

We did our best, and it wasn’t good enough. We took a helluva beating – but not, if you study the figures, by all that much. Bush’s ‘decisive’ victory wasn’t a cliffhanger nor was it overwhelming. There’s room for improvement. Some years ago the defunct conservatives were reborn as a winning party by borrowing wholesale basic strategies from the left, such as patiently building from the base up and creating viable coalitions. Bush’ Republican tacticians have proven good students of left-of-center politics. In 1964 Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson by 23 points managing to carry just six states. But the conservatives didn’t give up. They regrouped and fought back. By 1968 Nixon crushed Humphrey in the electoral college 30l-191. Can we not copy our copiers?

Here’s a modest suggestion. Instead of reliance on expensive focus groups, demographic studies and temperature-taking polls, which do very little except fatten the wallets of pollsters, why not try honest blunt crude speech? Starting with the most cursed word in the political vocabulary: electable.

Clancy Sigal is the author of the great tour of working class America Going Away and most recently Frida: Bringing Frida Kahlo’s Life and Art to Film.


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Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset

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