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A Dying Breed
Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist
by W. A. Swanberg (528 pp.,$14.95) Scribners.
Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist is an excellent, engrossing book about an excellent, engrossing and, for my generation, all but forgotten man. Since Thomas so often espoused the causes of youth this obscurity is especially unfortunate. Therefore, W. A. Swanberg's new biography comes at a very appropriate time. If it does nothing else, it shows how effective a man of principle can be in a world where political.expediency usually comes first.
It ould be argued that Thomas was one of the last of that odd breed, the honest politician. It could also be argued that Thomas' success at being honest was what led to his failure at being a truly successful politician (the kind that wins elections). He was the Socialist Party's candidate for President six times. He lost each race – the sixth and final one in 1948 by a landslide. And yet, paradoxically, with each election his prestige rose.
However, the paradox almost disappears as Swanberg presents the man' through his speeches, letters, diaries and -through the eyes of his friends, enemies and relatives. A charming individual and a commanding speaker, Thomas said what he believed even when he knew its potential unpopularity. The majority of the people wouldn't vote for him because of his views, but they could respect and believe him because he so freely gave them.
"I cannot believe," he said during World War I, "that democracy is a garment that can be taken off and put ill mothballs for future use or that you can secure democratic ends by Prussian methods of which the latest example is the legislation which makes the Postmaster General judge . of what the American people shall read."
This belief that principles were not something that could be molded to fit the moment and had to be consistent and deeply ingrained .to be effective was characteristic of Thomas. It also gave him his particular insight as' he was rarely motivated by personal or party needs. He refused to see things in purely black and white terms and felt that to be really practical was to be really principled.
Time bore him out, as America's "bending the truth" policies (which he vigorously opposed, saying, "What's more than truth? A lie? ... And what sort of propaganda for democracy is this?") led it further and further into foreign policy and domestic entanglements-most of which Thomas had foreseen.
He was one of the first to worry about American involvement in Indochina and was one of the earliest anti-war critics when we actually did get -involved. He expressed concern for foreign peoples' rights ("In all the discussion of the future of Indochina everybody has been mentioned except the Indochinese"), as well as for that: rights of those in the U.S. He was an early advocate of trade unionism (and later, a strong critic of the same unions for their abuses) and showed concern for birth control, energy conservation and the mentally ill. He was critical of the government for its lack of action regarding racial discrimination, and was also quite vocal on such diverse topics as freedom of the press, divorce laws, nuclear disarmament, campaign financing laws, and the admission of Red China to the U.N.
All of these causes were motivated by what Thomas felt·was a practical necessity, world survival, and also by what Swanberg analyzes as a kind of compulsion. Injustice or error so disturbed him mentally or emotionally that he was compelled subjectively to speak out against it," even when he knew it would do no good.
This sort of analysis appears throughout the book and the author successfully hits on all the important facets of Thomas' character; his charm, eloquence, pride, optimism and wit – all factors which enabled him to survive disappointments that might otherwise have overwhelmed him.
When nearly blinded in his old age, for example, "he seized a round object and gnawed at it before his daughter could tell him that it was not a cookie but a cork coaster. 'My God!' he said with relief, 'I had begun to doubt your cookery!'" Others might have been embarrassed, but' Thomas saw the humor in the situation and ignored the pathos. This kind of attitude constantly helped him keep his perspective on himself, on others, and on events.
Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist is intelligent, comprehensive, balanced and highly readable. It doesn't sentimentalize, but rather presents a fascinating picture of a .complex man who had a faith in man's basic intelligence that many politicians lack.
Paradoxically, Thomas' greatest strength-his concern for others-was also his greatest weakness. As Swanberg says, "He ... seemed inherently unable to confine himself to his central purpose, to ward off the many appeals for his attention which less sympathetic men instantly declined or referred to aides. .. Bad treatment ot:: anyone by anyone distressed" him, but it was worst of all if someone was· mistreated by a branch of government that was supposed to protect him. He was invariably spending valuable time looking into the case of some man said to be unjustly imprisoned, someone claimed to be falsely confined in a mental institution, someone in a snarl with the immigration authorities or even a widow in need of food or hospitalization." In a time when people' are too oten concerned only with themselves we could use more flawed men like Norman Thomas.
COLUMBIA DAILY SPECTATOR, November 30, 1976