Saturday, May 12, 2012

From Precinct to President

May 12, 2012, 11:40 a.m.

Maintaining Democracy
with the Johnson County Democrats Hall of Fame

As we encourage the creation of the institutions of a "civil society" in other countries, and watch the emergence of democracies during "the Arab spring," it's appropriate to take the pulse of our own political system. ("Civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests." "Civil Society,"

It's come a long way -- and not necessarily for the good -- from the days of ward bosses who provided jobs for constituents in exchange for their votes on election day, or the fundraising during Adlai Stevenson's campaigns for president that took the form of $1 contributions during door-to-door solicitations of "Dollars for Democrats."

Voting in Elections. It was early in my life, and interest in politics and government, that the importance of participation in political party activities firmly registered. The number of Americans who don't even vote is discouraging, and possibly dangerous -- sometimes as many as 90 percent or more of registered voters don't vote in city council or school board elections.

Voting in Primaries. What was particularly worthy of reflection was the 19th Century, New York City Tammany Hall political Boss Tweed's saying, "I don't care who does the electing, so long as I do the nominating." (Quoted in Susan Welch, Understanding American Government (2003); "William M. Tweed,"

If not everyone chooses to vote in elections, fewer still vote in primaries -- a process that, for the most part, requires membership in a party. As a result, those who do vote in primaries -- and thereby participate in the selection of the parties' nominees -- have at least a couple orders of magnitude (100 times) the political power and influence of those who only vote in elections.

Working in Primaries and Elections. Finally, those who actually work in campaigns, party headquarters, and their local precincts -- as distinguished from just voting in their party's primary -- increase their political power by another couple of orders of magnitude. That can be increased further by holding office within the local party, from precinct co-chair and central committee member to county chair; to state or national delegate to party conventions; to state or federal office holder.

But to sustain this system we need a constant influx of enthusiastic youngsters too young to vote, but not to work, new voters, and others with the energy needed to fuel our democracy.

One of the ways to bring that about is for the adults who have been there to look for opportunities to tell their story, to make the case why young people will find friends and fun as well as deep satisfaction from "getting involved in politics."

A week ago today [May 5], Mary Vasey and I were among those inducted into the Johnson County [Iowa] Democrats "Hall of Fame." Although well attended, it would have been better had more of those young people been present. Nonetheless, I used the occasion to tell a part of the story of my own political involvement, involving a chance opportunity to visit with President Harry Truman at the White House, and why all of us should do what we can to encourage today's young people as he did on that occasion in 1952.

Here is a transcript of those remarks:

From Precinct to President
Nicholas Johnson
On the Occasion of Being Inducted Into the Johnson County (Iowa) Democrats Hall of Fame
Marriott Hotel, Coralville, Iowa
May 5, 2012

My thanks to whoever it is who thought us worthy of this honor, and to Brian Flaherty – one of Iowa law school’s finest – for that introduction.

Mary has acknowledged those of our children who are able to be here [Julie; Greg, with Makur; Joel, Jason and Karl]. I want to mention the grandchildren who are present: granddaughter Laura, who speaks Spanish fluently and helps Spanish-speaking people get access to services in Des Moines; her daughter, and our great granddaughter, Nia, who is headed toward a career in science; Jason’s son and our grandson, Alec, a graduate of West High, who is a member of the Iowa City treasure that goes by the name of the Combined Efforts Theater; and Shinji Uozumi, our friend and a distinguished visiting scholar from Japan, whom we consider a member of our family whenever he and his family are here in Iowa City. [It was Shinji who prepared the professional video of our presentations, and the still pictures, one of which is embedded in this blog entry.]

Because I do not have a reputation as a man of very few words, with so many articulate people here this evening I thought I should limit myself to but one relatively short story -– at least short by my standards.

We had an organization called Hi-Y when I was attending University High School, U. High. Hi-Y was a high school organization within the national YMCA. How I came to be the national president of Hi-Y is a story for another day -- indeed, a day, you will be relieved to know, that need not ever come.

The point of this evening’s story is that, as national Hi-Y president, I was invited to attend an event in Washington, D.C., called the “YMCA Youth in Government Assembly.”

One of the featured events of our Assembly was a visit to the White House to meet President Harry Truman, where he addressed us in the Rose Garden.

Although I knew his remarks had a great impact on me, years later I couldn’t recall exactly what he said and did not have a copy. I didn’t even know if a copy existed anywhere. Nor could I recall the exact date, necessary to track it down if it did exist.

Then, 17 years ago, going through some old files, I came upon a brochure from that Washington Assembly, and was eventually able to find Truman’s remarks among his presidential papers.

I won’t read the entire talk to you. These brief excerpts will make my point.

He said, quote,

“Now this one person before you here has been from precinct to President all along the line. I have been in elective public office for 30 years. . . . I am going to continue to serve the country, understand, but I will do it in a little freer way than I do now.

“Learning about government is absolutely essential to people your age,” he continued, “because it is going to be your responsibility now, in a few years – you will be responsible for the operation of the Government,” unquote.
(President Harry S. Truman, "Remarks to the Members of the National YMCA and Government Assembly," June 26, 1952, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.)

We refer to the “take-away” from a speech, or a meeting; what you think is most important; what you recall days or even years later.

And what I heard from President Truman, my take away from that afternoon at the White House, was (1) the fact that he had started with precinct work, and thought it worth mentioning, (2) the importance of learning about government, and (3) that high school students my age would someday be responsible for the operation of the government.

It was his reference to precinct work that encouraged me to become a precinct captain in my college town.

It was his insistence on studying government that prompted me to become a political science major, and later a law student.

And when he said that, quote, "in a few years you will be responsible for the operation of the Government," well, I guess I must have decided right then that I was going to set out to prove him right.

Ultimately, in the 1980s, I came back home to Iowa City, where I was born, the family home in which I lived during the 1940s, and which I now occupy once again, with Mary.

I had by then visited with two presidents in the Oval Office, a fourth in the Rose Garden, and held three presidential appointments during the administrations of all four of them, with the exception of the President, Harry Truman, who started me on this path.

And for much of the 1980s and beyond I served as co-chair for what was then Precinct One in Iowa City, going door-to-door to get out the vote.

I have been flattered to have been asked to run for the U.S. Senate and Congress from Iowa, and the local School Board -– two of which I actually did undertake -– and even asked to be the presidential candidate for a third party, which you will be relieved to hear I did not do.

But in many ways I am most proud, and rewarded, by the work I’ve done in the precincts, in candidates’ campaign headquarters, and in a variety of roles within the Johnson County Democrats organization. Why? Because, ultimately, that is the work that makes our democracy possible, and the foundation upon which it builds in each of America’s 3100-plus counties.

I hope you will find two take-aways from these remarks.

(1) The importance and dignity of precinct work in the lives of each of us -- as well as in the life of a great Democrat, President Harry Truman.

(2) The role that each of us can play, and must play, in encouraging our young people to participate in the nuts and bolts of democracy, in campaigns and at the precinct level – as President Truman did for me, and I try to do for those in the generations which will follow us.

Thank you again for this honor, and the honor of knowing and working with you through the years.

Other Johnson County Democrats' Hall of Fame
Inductees Honored May 5, 2012

J. Patrick White, former Johnson County Attorney
Jeanette Carter, long-time, all-purpose, hard-working precinct and Party activist
Mary Larew, multifaceted participant in numerous local organizations
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