The lonely RepublicanIn the late ’50s, President Dwight Eisenhower was in his second term. John Kennedy was still a relative unknown in Congress. For the most part, the America I lived in was comfortably Republican, except on the campus of Temple University, where I went to school.
That’s where I met Dr. William McKenna.
Dr. McKenna was a professor of economics. He was a celebrity of sorts, appearing on the local TV news with regularity whenever there was a need to analyze an election. If Temple was an island of liberalism in a sea of Republicans, Dr. McKenna was the one conservative fortress liberals had failed to breach.
Dr. McKenna always wore three-piece suits with a flower in the lapel. His cheeks were as ruddy as Old St. Nick’s. His tousled hair showed few streaks of gray. A student might be intimidated by Dr. McKenna upon first meeting him, but not for long. He was a warm and kind human being, the original compassionate conservative, if you will. We loved him even though we were befuddled by the complexity of his lectures.
Life at Temple was not easy for Dr. McKenna. We — his students — were in the early blush of youthful idealism, and that idealism had little use for Eisenhower Republicanism. We thought Eisenhower a hopeless fuddy-duddy, America was falling behind the Soviets, and we only tolerated Dr. McKenna because we liked him. Dr. McKenna took it all in good stride. His debates with students over political affairs were never strident. He never patronized our youth.
Dr. McKenna was known for his photographic memory. I witnessed at least one remarkable example. One day he had forgotten to take our marked test papers to class. We were terribly disappointed, but Dr. McKenna was undaunted. He went around the room and from memory whispered our test scores to us.
If my memory serves me correctly, it was around the time when the Soviets ruthlessly crushed the uprising in Hungary. It was a terrible moment for free peoples around the world, especially in the United States because we had to stand by and do nothing. Of course, we students blamed Eisenhower for selling out free Hungary. We were young and we knew no limits to what we thought American power could accomplish.
Again, Dr. McKenna was patient with us — although I must say that his rosy cheeks flushed a little more at our criticisms of Ike.
I suffered through a terrible semester of the "Economics of Transportation" with Dr. McKenna, through no fault of his. I was sadly overmatched in the subject. I missed the final exam and had to report to Dr. McKenna’s room for a makeup exam.
With great trepidation, I approached the classroom that day. It was just me and Dr. McKenna. He had decided to switch tests. The makeup exam would be open-book essay questions. We had to write an essay from one of the two groups of questions. I peered closely at the questions. My awful luck: I could answer both questions in the first group, but had no idea how to answer any in the second group. What to do ?
I saw failure staring me in the face. It was time for desperate measures. I pretended to misread the instructions and answered both questions from the first group.
In those days, you would hand the teacher a blank postcard with your completed exam and he or she would mail it back with your grade, that way you didn’t have to wait for your entire transcript. I received my postcard back from Dr. McKenna with a "B" and the rest of the card covered with minuses. To this day, I believe the good doctor knew I had scammed him, but had let me off easy.
In the years following graduation, I continued to follow Dr. McKenna’s appearances on TV at election time. He still wore the flower in the lapel of his three-piece suit. His predictions were never based on bias. He was scrupulously fair, but I knew the agony he must have been feeling because the Democrats and JFK had barely won the White House.
I wonder what he would be thinking about the Republican Party of George W. Bush today. Conservatives have proven that they are as smitten by power as anyone else. They might hate Washington, but they love being there. The Republican Party today doesn’t much resemble the party to which Dr. McKenna had allegiance.
The President has just signed off on another huge entitlement (the Medicare prescription plan) at a time of big deficits. The party of Teddy Roosevelt views conservation as a dirty word and allows the oil companies to help write their energy program. The party of Eisenhower has made a mess of securing the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden still elude us.
I think Dr. McKenna would be disappointed and feel more alone than ever.