Phil Gulley: Yesterday’s News

As the elections arrive, I’m reminded of two newspaper publishers—and the way things used to be.
When I was growing up, our town had two newspapers—The Danville Gazette and The Republican. Bob Pearcy was a Democrat and owned the Gazette. Betty Weesner was a Republican and owned The Republican. They were dear friends, having known one another since first grade, and when the press at the Gazette was down for repairs, Betty let Bob print his Democratic views on her Republican printer. When The Republican press was down, Bob returned the favor. Witnessing such collegiality as a child made it easy for me to switch parties when I married my liberal Methodist wife, who agreed to become a Quaker if I became a Democrat.

I’m writing about Betty and Bob in the past tense, though both are still alive. Newspaper people have ink in their veins, which adds to their years. I use the past tense because I’m writing about what used to be in terms of time and spirit. In this polarized age, I don’t suspect a Republican or Democrat would lend the other a hand, let alone a printing press. But it was different back then, before talk radio gave the least stable among us a microphone. Now such zealots run for public office.

Owning a Democratic newspaper in a Republican town was a lonely business. Bob spent his life swimming against the tide, but cheerfully kept at it, letting his light shine in the darkness. On election nights, Bob, Betty, and other interested parties would gather at the courthouse and watch as Russ Lawson, the superintendent of the county highway department, climbed a ladder to post the results as they were phoned in from the far-flung precincts of Amo, Cartersburg, and North Salem. The Democrats never won, but looking at Bob, you never would have guessed it. His entire life was spent smiling through disappointment.

Had a Democrat won, it would have made no practical difference. They were every bit as traditional as the Republicans, their party allegiance having more to do with birthright than ideology. For the most part, the Democrats were Catholics, except for Bob, who was a member of the Disciples of Christ. Bob served in World War II and might have promised God he’d become a Democrat if he made it home alive.

Though their respective megaphones were small, Bob and Betty’s message was clear and principled: democracy, the nation above the party.

Both The Danville Gazette and The Republican cost the same, so there was no financial advantage to belonging to one party over the other. Bob and Betty wrote the same stories, often shared the same information, and scrupulously avoided any topics they didn’t believe were anyone’s business. If someone were arrested and sent to jail, both newspapers would simply mention the individual was traveling out of state.

Despite Bob’s efforts, ours remains a one-party town. The Republicans slug it out in May, during the primaries. This past spring, a woman whose family has avoided the tangle of politics unseated a longtime member of the town council. A young man is having a go at our state representative who has marched in lockstep with the statehouse silliness, and in my mind is vulnerable. We are in a mood to pull down statues.

Our weariness with incumbents might be indicative of a national trend. I wouldn’t want to be the one having to convince prospective voters that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush have something fresh to offer. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, the crusty New Englander, is finding his voice. I hope he wins, mostly to see Bill O’Reilly spontaneously combust. I like Sanders for several reasons, the chief one being his relative poverty compared to Clinton. He might be the only member of Congress to enter the office middle-class and stay that way. That can only mean one thing—he has spent more time doing his job than grubbing for money. This is a radical departure from customary practice, which scares the daylights out of Democrats and Republicans alike, who fear it might become a trend and lead to widespread unemployment in the lobbying industry.

Indiana’s statehouse is no better. After years of political inbreeding, the depth of thought in our majority party is as shallow as a kiddie pool. Thus we see, session after session, year after year, a sewage stream of poor ideas, alongside a torrent of abuses—township trustees hiring their kin, former state representative Eric Turner allegedly burying legislation he believed would harm his family business. Meanwhile, Indiana’s standard of living slips downhill, tumbling toward the nation’s bottom. The same government that pulls the welcome mat out from under gays and lesbians, that imprisons its citizens at six times the rate China imprisons hers, gladly rolls out the silken carpet for corporations who offer minimum opportunities while demanding maximum public assistance.

Knowing Bob and Betty as I do, knowing their high regard for the common man, I suspect they would dispense with their customary restraint and voice concern about politicians who have forgotten what it is like to stand in a courthouse on a November night, pressed against the sweaty populace, watching Russ Lawson climb up and down the ladder, working his way to the hour of truth. Though their respective megaphones were small, their message was clear and principled: democracy, the nation above party, the firm conviction that a worker was every bit as important as the man who employed him. This is what has been lost in Indiana, lost in our country.

A fragment of democracy remains in our town, however. On the first and third Mondays of every month, the council gathers at the town hall. All are welcome. The wrestling ensues, under the careful gaze of the Fourth Estate, or what remains of it. The Gazette closed and Bob is in a retirement home. The Republican sails along, another Betty at the tiller. The new Betty sits in the back, taking notes, tending the flowers of democracy, setting things right. I can’t help but think we would be better off to fire Congress and put Bob and Betty in charge.