A Sit-Down with Studs

BY Laura S. Washington

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I have burning questions about The American Left. Where is it going? Who is leading it? Who could have the answers? Studs Terkel of course.

I’m not a big believer in the cult of personality. Neither was Jim Weinstein, the founding editor and publisher of this magazine. He was my friend and mentor. But I know Jim will forgive me if, in my inaugural column for In These Times, I tell you a bit about myself. I pen an op-ed column for the Chicago Sun-Times, the paper for the city’s proletariat. You can hear me opining on NPR’s “News and Notes,” hosted by Ed Gordon. At DePaul University, I proudly hold a chair named for the legendary activist journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. I teach investigative reporting. My students keep me real.

I follow race and politics passionately. It’s an honor to be invited to share those passions here. Jim would no doubt differ with some of the ideas I’ll bring to these pages, and I hope you will too.

I have burning questions about The American Left. Where is it going? Who is leading it? Who should be? Who would have answers? Studs, of course. Louis “Studs” Terkel, at 93, is as Delphic as ever. We visited on a recent afternoon in the living room of his rambling brick house in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

On the left, “people are waiting for voices,” Terkel said. Voices for “non-revolutionary change.” Instead, he argued, we get pragmatists. “The most horrendous word possible.” Terkel’s poster boy for pragmatism is U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Terkel dubs Emanuel the “Henry Kissinger of the Democratic Party.”

So Studs, is U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) a pragmatist? “Hillary? Of course. Hillary represents that move to the center. … Do you know when it began? As soon as Bill Clinton OK’d the welfare reform bill. I’m no fan of the Clintons.”

Would you vote for Hillary? “Would I vote for her against the Republicans? Sure. But in other words, I’ll vote for a case of the whooping cough rather than cancer.”

From my perch, a presidential nomination for Clinton seems inevitable. Since 2001, she has raised $33.2 million, reports the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Talk about pragmatism. It turns out that this “liberal” Democrat served on the board of the corporate behemoth Wal-Mart while her husband was the governor of Arkansas, according to the Associated Press.

Terkel says the decline of the left is the Siamese twin of the faltering labor movement. “You cannot separate the destiny of the failed left with the condition of the labor movement,” he says. “Without the labor movement there is no left.”

He does see hope, however, in a “new constituency for labor” in the Third World. And “we do have women, more than ever, and people who were never organized before. Women cleaning the beds. The doormen, janitors.” 

We have forgotten our history. He calls it National Alzheimer’s Disease.

As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 11 books, Terkel knows something about words. Even our language has moved to the right, he says. Take the word “liberal.” “It’s now a word of disapprobation,” he posits. “Liberal. That guy’s a liberal.’ What was the phrase in the Cold War? ‘Guy’s a commie.’ Or a commie sympathizer. Isn’t that something?” 

“Something called ‘middle class’ took over,” he says. “Suddenly something called ‘working class,’ as a word, disappeared. It was a European word. It was almost a subversive word. If someone said ‘working class,’ you said ‘uh uh, a commie!’ We’re all middle class, whether we got $20,000 a year or $200,000 a year. The labor movement now suffers tremendously, because we’re now middle class.”

Another word, in fact an entire era, has disappeared, Terkel says. “Depression. When I say, ‘Are we going through another Depression?’ people don’t know what I’m talking about. Because the only depression they know is the psychic one … like manic depression.” It’s as if the Depression never happened. Another symptom of our National Alzheimer’s Disease.

Even as he rails against the Bushies, the ex-vaudevillian Terkel performs with style and charm. The day I dropped by, he was adorned, as always, in his trademark red-and-white checkered shirt and red socks.

The indefatigable pontificator broke his neck in a bad fall in 2004. Last year he went under the knife for open heart surgery. But he still enjoys his nip, and has the red cheeks to prove it. His curiosity keeps him going. His upcoming book, a memoir, is fittingly titled Touch and Go.

He’s back in writing shape. He’s learning to use an electric typewriter. For Studs Terkel, Google is the old comic strip.”When I hear ‘Google,’ I think of Barney Google. With the goo-goo-googly eyes.” 

Studs, stay well, and let the goose hang high.

Join Laura Washington and Studs Terkel in Chicago on April 20.

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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