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[Easy Chair]

On Courage

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As of this writing, we are still about three months away from the first vote of the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination—­and already “our side” seems set to tear itself apart. Tempers are frayed, charges are flying, and there is much talk about how none of the declared candidates will do.

Part of this is life under Trump. The president is like a low-pressure system that never lifts. The sheer weight of his presence hanging over us—tweeting out ignorant pronouncements, denying reality, subjecting us to his bottomless insecurities—­is enough to make us rub our temples and flex our jaws for relief.

The intraparty tension is due to a candidate selection process that is head-smackingly stupid even for the Democrats. Massive debates put the four or five serious contenders onstage with some half dozen hecklers eager to savage the front-runner dramatically enough to make the next news cycle. Even worse are the media interlocutors, who seem mostly interested in promoting themselves: brand over country. Beyond that, many of them take an accountant’s-­eye view of everything, preoccupied with how much a program costs and unconcerned with what it’s worth.

Conspicuous by its absence is any sense of a bigger picture. How are we to remove the influence of money from a system in which members of Congress now routinely spend four or five hours a day making fund-­raising calls? Do we really need to maintain some eight hundred military bases, in eighty countries around the world? Never mind the costs and terms of this or that particular health-care plan; how is it that America doesn’t have a universal system of affordable care, as every other country in the developed world established decades ago?

Off the stage, the national media has been nearly as bad, mostly rushing to get the panicked reaction from Wall Street to all the frightening things Democrats are saying. Billionaire Leon Cooperman—previously best known for his pompous 2011 open letter accusing President Obama of promoting “class warfare,” and for shelling out nearly $5 million to settle an insider-trading suit from the S.E.C.—broke into tears on CNBC while contemplating Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plans for regulating Wall Street. “This is the fucking American dream she is shitting on,” he later told Politico.

Steve Rattner, the financial adviser and New York Times opinion writer, agreed with Cooperman that “a Warren presidency is a terrifying prospect,” to be entertained only “if you want to live in France.” Rattner—a “lifelong Democrat” who has spent the past forty years scooping up a great fortune while dancing merrily back and forth between major media outlets, the Street, and the White House (and, hey, ­whaddaya know, having to pay out millions to the S.E.C. for his own scandal, which involved kickbacks in exchange for gaining control over investing public pension funds)—­warned:

Left to her own devices, [Warren] would extend the reach and weight of the federal government far further into the economy than anything even President Franklin Roo­sevelt imagined.

Yes, that whole crazy New Deal thing . . .

Trying for a closer, saner look at the candidate who seems to frighten Big Money the most, I went to hear Warren speak at her September rally in New York’s Washington Square Park. I was there with the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition (R.T.F.C.), a nonprofit group dedicated to educating the public about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and now trying to install a permanent memorial to the victims of the blaze. Warren’s campaign had reached out to the president of our coalition, Mary Anne Trasciatti, a Hofstra University professor and a brilliant speaker and writer about the fire, which was one of the worst industrial disasters in American history.

The Triangle fire killed 146 people—­almost all of them women or girls, many of them teenagers—in fewer than twenty minutes. They died when a blaze broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of what was then the Asch Building, in Greenwich Village. They died because the factory’s owners had failed to provide any firefighting equipment. They died because most of the doors were locked at the Triangle, so that their handbags could be inspected before they left, lest they walk off with a few pennies’ worth of cloth. They died after rushing out to a fire escape that quickly collapsed beneath them. They died falling through a glass roof, impaled on an iron fence, tumbling down an empty elevator shaft. They died plunging through the firemen’s nets—and even through the sidewalk.

Warren was speaking where she was because of the Triangle fire, which occurred just a few hundred feet from Washington Square. Her speech was part of a tour of key sites in the struggle for economic justice in America. The tour had started in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where an epic mill strike had taken place in 1912. If the dates make it sound as if these must be old and familiar stories, they sounded fresh and vital in Warren’s telling.

She framed the tragedy at the Triangle factory in terms of corruption, which was just: the deaths happened in part thanks to the venality of the city’s legendary Democratic machine, Tammany Hall. Just the year before, women had been out on a massive garment strike, the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand, and the Tammany machine that claimed to be for the people had sided with the sweatshop owners. Tammany sent the cops—and the cops brought the pimps and gangsters they controlled—to beat and arrest the women on the picket lines, and scoffed at any suggestion that New York businesses be compelled to create a workplace that wasn’t a death trap. At the time of the fire, in a city already chockablock with tall buildings, New York fire trucks had no ladders that reached beyond six stories, because Tammany viewed the fire department mostly as another means of filling its pockets.

“The tragic story of the Triangle factory fire is a story about power,” Warren told the thousands jammed into the park that night. “A story of what happens when the rich and the powerful take control of government and use it to increase their own profits while they stick it to working people.” The aftermath of the fire, she continued, was “a different story about power.” She invoked the name of “one very persistent woman,” Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet member in American history.

Perkins was born in 1880 to an old but un­moneyed New En­gland family. After graduating from Mount Holyoke, she set out into the world—living and working in some of the harshest slums in America, becoming a friend, protégé, and student of reformers ranging from Florence Kelley to Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair to Teddy Roosevelt.

Nothing deterred her. Fighting to keep young Southern women, black and white, from being forced into prostitution when they arrived in Philadelphia, she faced down a pair of menacing pimps with nothing more than her umbrella, shouting their names until they ran away. Years later, after she became secretary of labor, she surprised corrupt officials from the Hoover Administration who were trying to dispose of damning files at the Labor Department; accompanied only by a single, elderly watchman, she ordered them out of the building. They went.

She was visiting a friend in the Village when the Triangle fire broke out, and she rushed to the site in time to see the women plunging to their deaths.

“One by one, the people would fall off,” she later recalled. “They had gone to the window for air, and they jumped. It’s that awful choice people talk of—what kind of choice to make?”

It was, she later said, “the day the New Deal began”—mostly because it was the day that Perkins decided to throw herself fully into what used to be called “practical politics.” In New York, she brought change by allying herself with the new emerging leaders of the corrupt old machine, men such as Al Smith, Robert F. Wagner, and “Big Tim” Sullivan. She learned to drink straight whiskey to keep their company, and she wore black tricornered hats that reminded the pols of their mothers—then dragged them through the worst factories in the state. Change began to happen: workplaces grew safer, hours got shorter, pay increased.

Franklin Roosevelt named her New York State’s first industrial commissioner, then asked her to come to Washington as his labor secretary. Perkins said she would do it if she could do big things—much like Warren’s repeated calls for “big, structural change.”

“You wouldn’t want me if you didn’t want that done,” she told the president-elect. FDR agreed.

In Washington, Perkins charted a course for the New Deal. She initiated, wrote, and lobbied for legislation that abolished child labor; guaranteed workers the right to join a union; and established a minimum wage, the forty-hour work­week, overtime laws, workers’ compensation, and aid to families with dependent children. She also wrote most of the Social Security Act, transforming life for the aged and disabled in America to this day.

“There is no contribution that a Cabinet member has made in the history of this country that has had the lasting kind of effect on all of us and the way we live than what Frances Perkins did,” Lawrence O’Donnell notes in the new television documentary Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare.

She did some of her most courageous work in the field of human rights. During the Depression, she ceased federal cooperation with the Mexican Repatriation, in which state and local authorities deported hundreds of thousands of workers to Mexico, many of them U.S. citizens. She refused to deport Harry Bridges, the radical West Coast labor leader accused of being a Communist. She declined to intervene against striking workers—as the federal government so often had before—which allowed for major labor victories on the San Francisco waterfront and at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan. And almost alone in Washington, she recognized the threat that Adolf Hitler posed when he first came to ­power; she won a years-­long struggle with the State Department to let refugees stay in the United States, saving the lives of at least twelve thousand Jewish Germans and tens of thousands of other Europeans desperate for sanctuary.

For her efforts, Perkins’s enemies tried to impeach her. They floated a smear that she was really a secret Jewish Soviet agent named Matilda Watski—a charge Perkins was loath to deny, lest she appear anti-Semitic. “If I were a Jewess I would make no secret of it,” she finally said in a public statement. “On the contrary, I would be proud to acknowledge it.”

The irony was that there was no more devout Christian in the Roo­sevelt Administration. An Episcopalian, Perkins tried to spend one weekend a month in silent prayer and contemplation at a Catholic convent near Washington. What other spare time she had was devoted to caring for both a husband and a daughter who were repeatedly institutionalized for what is now known as bipolar disorder. Film footage of the ceremony at which FDR signed the Social Security Act into law shows Perkins moving restlessly behind him, even rolling her eyes through the speech­making. On that day of her greatest accomplishment she had just received word that her husband had escaped his caretakers and was lost somewhere in New York. As soon as she could, Perkins slipped out of the White House and took a train back to the city, where she managed to find her husband that evening.

“She used the same model that she and her friends had used after the Triangle fire: she worked the political system relentlessly from the inside while a sustained movement applied pressure from the outside,” Warren told us. It was a pretty fair description of how the New Deal worked—and how liberal government has always worked best.

By the end of Warren’s speech there was a sense of excitement in the air, it seemed to me, at being connected to such a woman as Frances Perkins, and to a time when Americans did big, good things. Milling around the speaker’s platform afterward while the senator worked her usual selfie line, I met three women who seemed as high as so many of us felt on the evening’s sense of possibility. They were Kate Casey, owner of the all-women Peg Woodworking company in Brooklyn, and two of her managers, Sally Suzuki and Catherine Woodard, who had made the podium Warren had just spoken from.

When Warren decided to make a speech in this place, her campaign reached out to Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, Perkins’s grandson and a genial keeper of the flame, who still lives at the Perkins Homestead in Maine—a site designated a National Historic Landmark. Coggeshall donated some “very, very weathered” wood from the property, which Casey made into the lectern at the campaign’s request.

When the wood arrived, Casey and her team “milled down to some really, really beautiful grain,” she said, and fashioned it into a podium much like those from Perkins’s time, forty-six inches high for the woman they hoped would be the forty-sixth president of the United States. They then reached out to the women in their lives and with them wrote quotes from great women and messages of support to Warren in the glue seams and other places where they will never be seen, but where Casey hoped they might “provide a deep meaning to this piece that by the very nature of its historical material carries such weight in women’s history.”

Casey, Suzuki, and Woodard took the podium into the park and assembled it. Afterward, they walked over to stand in silent tribute in front of the building where the Triangle factory had been and where Perkins and a crowd of horrified New Yorkers had watched helplessly as so many young women died.

“Every ounce of our energy was put into this piece, with no corners cut,” said Casey, who described the work as the greatest honor of her professional life. “As a furniture maker,” she added, “I know that objects have a presence and a power.”

Warren would privately thank these “three amazing women” for the podium, which she will take with her on the campaign trail. But I thought the most telling part of the evening was that she did not mention this “bully pulpit” from which she spoke. It was, in other words, something important to her, not just another political prop.

I

can’t tell you whether Senator Warren will be or even should be the Democratic nominee for president. Nor can the Triangle Coalition, as a nonprofit, endorse Warren or any other candidate. That choice, which requires such a careful balancing of head and heart, will be made by the voters. But I do think that the senator’s interest in connecting to the worthy struggles of the past—right down to the podium she grasps—tells us where her heart lies, what her core values and principles are. I would also say that, whichever candidate you choose, choose her or him on the basis of the extent to which you can discern that core. Not on the fears of Steve Ratt­ner, or the tears and curses of Leon Cooperman, or anybody else who tells you the sky can still fall in a country that elected Donald Trump president.

No candidate can truly say exactly what their plan for something will be or what it will cost before it is negotiated with Congress. There has never been a perfect presidential campaign, or a perfect president. Even our best presidents have been what we, the people, have made them with that “sustained pressure from the outside.” Our only guide should be the courage that Frances Perkins demonstrated every day of her life.


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January 2020