WASHINGTON: Several years ago my son and daughter-in-law-law gave me a book designed for grandfathers to tell the story of their life. I put off answering the many questions for some time, but, with the help of my daughter, have finally turned my attention to it. I hope that in future years, my five grandchildren, who range in age from 16 months to 13 years, will find it useful.
It also caused me to reflect on what lessons might be learned from a life long-lived.
Memories of a forgotten America
My memory goes back to World War II when, as a small child, I had an army uniform which I wore in pictures with my uncles who were in real uniforms. One of them fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
I remember when the war ended. We had a house at the beach and I marched in a parade with other children. On the day Franklin Roosevelt died, we heard news reports on the radio in our living room. My mother said, “This is important. You will remember this.” And I have.
My grandfather lived with us. A native of Lithuania, he emigrated to London as a young man and started a business producing and selling canes. Thinking he would be more successful in America he transferred his business there. He did not realize that canes were not as popular here as in England.
He then opened a seafood restaurant in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where my mother was born. When she and her five brothers and sisters approached college age the family moved to New York to take advantage of its tuition-free colleges.
My grandfather and I were constant companions in my younger years. We shoveled coal into our coal-burning furnace, cleared snow in winter and cut grass in Summer.
The natural diversity of a by-gone era
When I entered kindergarten, I spoke with a British accent. On the first day, my mother was asked, “Is your family from England?” My friends as a child represented many backgrounds and religions. My closest friends at that time were the children of parents from Ireland And Italy.
Our local newsstand featured newspapers in many languages. There was Il Progresso in Italian, The Forward in Yiddish, Aufbau in German, and the Irish Echo in Gaelic. Our neighbors came from many places, Poland, Germany, Greece and a variety of other European countries. Everyone was a shade of white.
I did not encounter legal segregation until I went to the College of William and Mary in Virginia. There, I saw “White” and “Colored” signs for the first time. Also, for the first time, I encountered many black people. In New York, I encountered almost none. At the 50th reunion of my class at Erasmus Hall High School, which had several thousand students, my classmates debated whether our high school had a single black student. There was no agreement. But if there was one—it was only one.
In college, I wrote a weekly column in The Flat Hat the school’s weekly newspaper.
I have been writing columns ever since. My political views were conservative—-but what was considered conservative then is quite different from the philosophy expressed by those who use that term today.
As Vice President of a student group, I was involved in inviting the first black speaker to William Mary. The president of the college called me to his office and said, Allan, I read your column. You are a conservative. Why are you doing this? I responded, “Racism is not something I want to conserve.”
Conservatives we’re supposed to believe in freedom and free enterprise. If Virginia is a free society, I argued, what right does the state have to tell people who to marry or restaurant owners who they may serve?
I became the College Secretary for the Young Republican Federation of Virginia.
Little Rock and Segregation
I was a freshman in college when President Eisenhower sent troops to integrate the schools in Little Rock. Republicans in Virginia opposed segregation. It was the Democrats who closed schools rather than integrate.
Later. After graduating from law school, I moved to Alexandria, Virginia where I taught at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School and the University of Maryland. At St. Stephen’s I was made 8th-grade soccer coach. I knew very little about the game, such as the fact that that at half-time teams shifted goals. As a result, my team scored a goal for its opponent, St. Alban’s. It was not my best day.
Soon after my time teaching, I went to work in Congress, first as an intern for Rep. Charles Mathias (R-MD.) I then worked for Sen Thomas Dodd (D-CT), who had been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trial of Nazi war criminals.
He was a strong opponent of Communism and I became his representative on the Senate Internal Security subcommittee. I wrote that committee’s study of the New Left and the anti–Vietnam war movement. I also traveled around the country defending the war against its critic
I then thought that it was important to be involved in Vietnam to prevent the spread of communism. I now think the war was a serious mistake. I believe it is important to change your mind when the facts prove you are wrong—-an important life lesson.
Later, I worked with Reps. Phil Crane and Jack Kemp (R-NY) and as an assistant to Patrick Boarman, a respected free-market economist who was chairman of the House Republican Study Committee. Members of the committee included two future presidents, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
The narrow partisanship which pollutes our political life today was absent.
Democrats were not viewed as “enemies,” but as fellow Americans to be convinced of the merits of the legislation we were proposing. Republicans then feared unlimited executive power, believed in free enterprise, free trade, and balanced budgets. What the Republican Party believes at the present time is difficult to understand.
During this time I wrote a weekly column for Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, and went on to edit The New Guard, the magazine of Young Americans ) for Freedom, and serve as associate editor of the Lincoln Review, the publication of The Lincoln Institute, whose President was Jay Parker, a good friend and of the earliest and leading black conservatives.
Jay headed the transition team at the EEOC during President Reagan’s first term. I was a member of that transition team, along with Clarence Thomas, later to become a Supreme Court Justice. We called for a truly color-blind society and an end to race-based quotas.
My travels have taken me around the world. I spent time in South Africa when I was the Washington correspondent for two of its leading Afrikaans-language newspapers. I was happy to see apartheid come to an end just as I saw segregation end in the American South.
I had the opportunity to visit Russia in the years of Communism. I have spent time in Prague when the Russians occupied it in 1968. I have particularly enjoyed family visits——to see my son Burke in Peru, where he was based to oversee security for Peace Corps volunteers in South America, my daughter Ali, who taught English in Abu Dhabi, and my son Peter in Italy, where he served as a diplomat.
Peter tells me I have been to Italy more than twenty times.
The events I have lived through have challenged American society.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy, the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, riots in Detroit, the burning down of parts of Washington, D.C, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq based on false claims of weapons of mass destruction. Yet, these unfortunate events were accompanied by positive ones. There was the end of segregation, victory in the Cold War, legislation prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion or ethnicity, the election of the first black president.
Societies don’t move in a single direction. Sometimes two steps forward are followed by a step backward. I remain optimistic about the future. America will move past the current moment of divisiveness and partisanship.
Hopefully, I have learned something from all of this.
One thing I think I have learned is that free societies are rare in history. Our Constitution is the oldest existing government in the world. The Founding Fathers learned from history the dangers of excessive government, particularly an all-powerful executive. Our system of checks and balances was meant to protect against such a development.
Congress’ power to declare war.
The last time it did so was World War ll. Since then, we have gone to war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere, and at this writing are on the brink of war with Iran. All without a congressional declaration. The Founding Fathers would be disappointed. But they would not be surprised.
They feared that human nature being what is, government power would grow.
I have also learned to respect those whom I disagree
During the Vietnam War, when I engaged in debate with anti-war critics, I would often go out with them and continue the conversation. Now, many years later, I think many of their arguments were correct. I have changed my mind on many times as new information became available.
Being rigid in your views and unwilling to consider alternative approaches is not the path to wisdom.
I have learned to respect America’s uniqueness.
Americans are of every race, religion, and ethnicity. It is sad to see some today criticize immigration and immigrants. The fact is that, other Native Americans, we are all immigrants. I like the quote, “If you shed one drop of American blood, you shed the blood of the whole world.”
I hope that when my grandchildren are old enough to read this book I have prepared they will get an idea of their grandfather’s life, values, and thoughts. I hope they will live in a better world and will help to make it so.