Almost forty years ago, Harry S. Truman asked me that, with a twinkle in his 82-year-old eyes. He was only half kidding. He had personally selected me to help his daughter Margaret write his biography because he liked several of my recent books.
“Mr. President,” I replied. “As far as I know, no one in the family has ever voted anything but the straight ticket.”
Mr. Truman’s smile could not have been brighter. “That’s exactly what I was hoping to hear!” he said.
That encounter with history is why I am writing this open letter to the Democrats of Kentucky. On May 20 they will choose their nominee for the presidential election of 2008. They will have a unique opportunity to complete the transformation of the Democratic Party that Harry Truman began in 1948.
It is not the first time Kentucky has wrestled with a painful historical choice. In 1849, Kentuckians voted on whether to abolish slavery in a new constitution and decided against it. The step was simply too huge to take alone, in an already divided union. Kentucky’s southern roots were too strong.
But when the Civil War exploded, a divided Kentucky stayed in the Union. Abraham Lincoln won a plurality of the votes in the general election of 1860. In my 2001 novel, When This Cruel War Is Over, I paint a portrait of Kentucky’s agony in the following years. I tell how the Republicans carried the congressional elections of 1862 with terror tactics that intimidated thousands of Democrats into not voting. By that time President Lincoln was a ruthless man. He often said: “To lose Kentucky is to lose the whole game.” I told the sad fate of the Orphan Brigade, the embittered Kentuckians who fought in the Confederate Army. The book’s climax is the brutal 1864 suppression of the so-called Northwest Conspiracy – a plot that called for an army of 100,000 well-armed “Sons of Liberty” from Kentucky and Indiana to seize the Midwest, secede from both the Union and the Confederacy and form a separate state calling for peace.
Kentucky’s unique past is why the coming primary election is so historic. If Kentucky’s Democrats name Barack Obama as their presidential candidate, it will decisively eliminate Hillary and Bill Clinton, who are ready to destroy the Democratic Party out of their greed for another four years in the White House. It will also be the final repudiation of 250 years of American history in which the Democratic Party told big lies about black Americans.
From 1800 to 1865, the Democrats said blacks were an inferior race, not worthy of freedom. For the next 83 years the party defended Jim Crow segregation and separate almost always unequal education. Then came the historic moment in 1948 when President Harry S. Truman desegregated America’s armed forces and insisted on a civil rights plank in the party’s platform at the Democratic convention. Enraged by Truman’s stand, Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and his followers from several other southern states stalked out of the hall and the Democratic Party. Someone asked Thurmond why he was so upset. In the Roosevelt era, the party had similar planks in the platform every four years. “Yes, but Truman means it!” Thurmond said.
I cast my first vote in 1948, with that civil rights plank passionately alive in my mind. As an Irish-American Democrat from New Jersey I understood what discrimination and political oppression could mean in people’s lives. That added to my appreciation of Mr. Truman’s totally unexpected reelection victory in the 1948 general election. A majority of the American people declared that year they thought Mr. Truman was right about civil rights and a lot of other things.
For black Americans 1948 was a turning point in their long and often torturous struggle for equality and respect. Barack Obama’s candidacy is the summit of the mountain up which leaders like Martin Luther King have led their people out of their faith in America’s promises. I urge Kentucky’s Democrats to vote with history in their heads and a similar faith in America in their hearts.