The 1940 Republican Convention. My brother and I went to sleep that nightThursday, June 27while the radio was on in the living room, and our father, our mother, and our older cousin Alvin sat listening together to the live coverage from Philadelphia. After six ballots, the Republicans still hadn't selected a candidate. Lindbergh's name was yet to be uttered by a single delegate, and because of an engineering conclave at a midwestern factory where he'd been advising on the design of a new fighter plane, he wasn't present or expected to be. When Sandy and I went to bed the convention remained divided among Dewey, Willkie, and two powerful Republican senators, Vandenberg of Michigan and Taft of Ohio, and it didn't look as though a backroom deal was about to be brokered anytime soon by party bigwigs like former president Hoover, who'd been ousted from office by FDR's overwhelming 1932 victory, or by Governor Alf Landon, whom FDR had defeated even more ignominiously four years later in the biggest landslide in history.
Because it was the first muggy evening of the summer, the windows were open in every room and Sandy and I couldn't help but continue to follow from bed the proceedings being aired over our own living room radio and the radio playing in the flat downstairs andsince an alleyway only barely wide enough for a single car separated one house from the nextthe radios of our neighbors to either side and across the way. As this was long before window air conditioners bested the noises of a neighborhood's tropical nights, the broadcast blanketed the block from Keer to Chancellora block on which not a single Republican lived in any of the thirty-odd two-and-a-half-family houses or in the small new apartment building at the Chancellor Avenue corner. On streets like ours the Jews voted straight Democratic for as long as FDR was at the top of the ticket.
But we were two kids and fell asleep despite everything and probably wouldn't have awakened till morning had not Lindbergh with the Republicans deadlocked on the twentieth ballotmade his unanticipated entrance onto the convention floor at 3:18 a.m. The lean, tall, handsome hero, a lithe, athletic-looking man not yet forty years old, arrived in his flying attire, having landed his own plane at the Philadelphia airport only minutes earlier, and at the sight of him, a surge of redemptive excitement brought the wilted conventioneers up onto their feet to cry "Lindy! Lindy! Lindy!" for thirty glorious minutes, and without interruption from the chair. Behind the successful execution of this spontaneous pseudo-religious drama lay the machinations of Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, a right-wing isolationist who quickly placed in nomination the name of Charles A. Lindbergh of Little Falls, Minnesota, whereupon two of the most reactionary members of Congress Congressman Thorkelson of Montana and Congressman Mundt of South Dakotaseconded the nomination, and at precisely four a.m. on Friday, June 28, the Republican Party, by acclamation, chose as its candidate the bigot who had denounced Jews over the airwaves to a national audience as "other peoples 'employing their enormous' influence . . . to lead our country to destruction," rather than truthfully acknowledging us to be a small minority of citizens vastly outnumbered by our Christian countrymen, by and large obstructed by religious prejudice from attaining public power, and surely no less loyal to the principles of American democracy than an admirer of Adolf Hitler.
"No!" was the word that awakened us, "No!" being shouted in a man's loud voice from every house on the block. It can't be. No. Not for president of the United States.
Within seconds, my brother and I were once more at the radio with the rest of the family, and nobody bothered telling us to go back to bed. Hot as it was, my decorous mother had pulled a robe over her thin nightdressshe too had been asleep and roused by the noiseand she sat now on the sofa beside my father, her fingers over her mouth as though she were trying to keep from being sick. Meanwhile my cousin Alvin, able no longer to remain in his seat, set about pacing a room eighteen-by-twelve with a force in his gait befitting an avenger out searching the city to dispose of his nemesis. The anger that night was the real roaring forge, the furnace that takes you and twists you like steel. And it didn't subsidenot while Lindbergh stood silently at the Philadelphia rostrum and heard himself being cheered once again as the nation's savior, nor when he gave the speech accepting his party's nomination and with it the mandate to keep America out of the European war. We all waited in terror to hear him repeat to the convention his malicious vilification of the Jews, but that he didn't made no difference to the mood that carried every last family on the block out into the street at nearly five in the morning. Entire families known to me previously only fully dressed in daytime clothing were wearing pajamas and nightdresses under their bathrobes and milling around in their slippers at dawn as if driven from their homes by an earthquake. But what shocked a child most was the anger, the anger of men whom I knew as lighthearted kibbitzers or silent, dutiful breadwinners who all day long unclogged drainpipes or serviced furnaces or sold apples by the pound and then in the evening looked at the paper and listened to the radio and fell asleep in the living room chair, plain people who happened to be Jews now storming about the street and cursing with no concern for propriety, abruptly thrust back into the miserable struggle from which they had believed their families extricated by the providential migration of the generation before.
>From The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Copyright by Philip Roth 2004. All rights reserved.
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