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’08 presidential election instills pride in being American

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The day after Harry Truman defeated Thomas Dewey for the presidency, I was standing on the Long Island Rail Road platform in Forest Hills, waiting for the train to take me to Freeport, L.I. I worked for the Post of Forest Hills and Kew Gardens and the Elmhurst−Rego Park Post, two newspapers owned by Henry Steiger, publisher of Argosy and other magazines. He also owned the printing plant I was going to.

I was to help put those newspapers “to bed” for Thursday publication. The Bayside Times, now a TimesLedger Newspaper, was among those printed in Freeport.

In those days, weekly newspaper people scoured the daily newspapers for possible leads to local stories. As I turned the pages of Hearst’s Journal−American, I noted the opening sentence of the column by Westbrook Pegler. It leaped from the page like a snarl: “Well, the American people got what they deserved.”

The day before, in my former elementary school on Van Horn Street in Elmhurst, I had cast my first vote. In those days, the eligibility age was 21. I was in my final year as an evening session student at City College in Manhattan and my short Army stint was behind me. I worked full−time at the newspapers.

I was raised to appreciate the privilege of voting and I have excercised that privilege, with the exception of my hospital stay this past winter, in every election and primary since 1948.

I was born a year before Gov. Alfred E. Smith was defeated for the presidency by Herbert Hoover in 1928, many believed in large part because Smith was Roman Catholic. I have lived to see a black man elected president. He called himself a “mutt” in his first news conference and I can appreciate that. I am the product of a non−practicing Lutheran father and a non−practicing Jewish mother. Theirs was called a “mixed marriage” in those days.

Neither of my parents was educated in the current sense. My mother, born in Poland, was barely literate. My father, the second generation Kowald born in this country, was 6 when his father died. My father went to work at 11, but he read at least two newspapers every day and listened to the news on the radio. My parents encouraged my sister and me to get the best educations we could and they worked hard to see to that happen.

Certainly they had prejudices, but I cannot remember them being voiced. My father taught me early on that it is what you do that counts, not what you look like.

He was a New York Giants baseball fan. He lived to see Willie Mays make his debut in 1951 and was thrilled by his achievements. He had always talked about the great players in the Negro League.

In my family, as in so many others to this day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was almost like a god. They did not ignore his failings, but so many millions reacted to his true compassion and concern for people. FDR said that the measure of a civilization is how well it treats its most needy citizens.

Recently, I remembered a speech that President Lyndon B. Johnson gave to Congress on March 15, 1965, about civil rights. In my lifetime, only words FDR spoke matched the eloquence and persuasiveness of LBJ that night. I Googled it and reading it moved me as deeply now as it did then. Here was a Southerner saying the things an anguished nation, one week after the horrors of Selma, Ala., longed to hear.

If you have a computer, read it again. It makes one proud once more to live in this country. Despite Pegler’s sneer, there are times in this nation when we are wise enough to get what we deserve.

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