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This article is based on excerpts from the new book, Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation.
By Alan Wieder
October 31, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — When Noam Chomsky recently told Amy Goodman that he would hold his nose and vote for Hillary Clinton if he lived in a swing state, it reminded me of Studs’ statements during the 2000 Gore-Bush election for the presidency. In 2000, Studs endorsed Ralph Nader, but like Chomsky at the present time, he suggested that it might be prudent in certain cases to vote for Gore. In 1970, when Chomsky appeared on Studs’ show to discuss his book, The New Mandarins, much of the conversation focused on conquest and corporate power. And the men agreed that grassroots movements, not heroes, changed history. Chomsky argues, in correspondence to the mass support of Bernie, that “The New Deal legislation of Roosevelt, for example, wouldn’t have been passed—it wouldn’t have even been initiated—without militant labor action and other political action.” Studs referenced 1948 Progressive Party candidate, Henry Wallace, during the 2000 election, arguing that Nader might elevate Gore just as Wallace did Truman. Both men also acknowledge realpolitik in terms of Supreme Court nominations to say nothing of Trump’s fascist tendencies.
So each day when I hear Trump and Clinton speak, I long to hear Studs talking about the coming election. I can imagine, I can even predict, but I can’t know because when Studs spoke we were surprised. He amazed us. What I can do, though, is review some of the political life of Studs Terkel — he clearly would have been vocal in 2016.
Third-party political advocacy and participation began for Studs in his youth. With his father, Sam, he listened on the radio to the American Socialist Party’s four-time Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs’ political orations. He also listened when his father repeated Debs’ words: “While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Many years later, in 1983, Studs was the recipient of the Eugene V. Debs Award “honoring a person whose work has been in the spirit of Debs and who has contributed to the advancement of the causes of industrial unionism, social justice, or world peace.”
As Studs participated in the collective Chicago Repertory Theatre group and the WPA Writers Project, he supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He viewed him as a President whose policies helped working people. However, in 1948 Studs endorsed and worked hard on Henry Wallace’s third-party presidential candidacy. Wallace was FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture in 1933. He became Vice President in 1940. Both Republicans and Democrats viewed him as too progressive. Harry Truman replaced him as Vice President in 1944. As Chicago politico Don Rose points out, “Studs was a third-party guy.” Studs worked with Algren, Timuel Black, Quentin Young and many other Chicago comrades on the Wallace campaign. Wallace’s positions included universal health care insurance and the end of segregation.
A Detroit friend, Lew Franks, asked Studs to co-produce an NBC special for the Wallace presidential campaign. His co-producer was the brilliant musicologist Alan Lomax. The show included two voices, Henry Wallace and Paul Robeson. Studs greatly admired and respected Henry Wallace, but it was Paul Robeson whom he most remembered from that evening. Speaking personally about American racism, Robeson reflected on his father and sang the provocative song “Scandalize My Name.” Wallace, Robeson, Studs and Lomax tried to create a racial dialogue that night on national radio, which unfortunately, did not lead to Wallace’s election.
Studs maintained his third-party politics as he went on to support Fred Harris, Barry Commoner, Nader, and Dennis Kucinich. When John Nichols eulogized Studs in The Nation, he wrote, “Politics was never a game for Studs. It was the work of a lifetime. He wrote brilliant books about the lives of working people not merely because their stories were fascinating but because he wanted to get a conversation started about class in America.” As a third-party advocate, Studs supported former Oklahoma senator Fred Harris’s populist presidential campaign in 1976. Harris had helped enact legislation for Indian rights while in the senate and in the late sixties he was briefly the chair of the Democratic National Committee. Very disillusioned by the Party, however, he referred to his campaign as new populism. One of his campaign brochures outlined his mission that included grassroots democracy, decentralization, and local, collective participation. The platform was attractive for Studs.
In 1980, Studs worked for Barry Commoner as a member of the Citizen’s Party’s Illinois committee with Quentin Young, Ed Sadlowski and Sydney Lens. The Citizens’ Party’s Presidential Convention was launched in Cleveland with two hundred and seventy-five delegates from thirty states. Studs gave the keynote address to a group that included a mix of old radicals, environmentalists, feminists, and representatives from labor. Addressing the crowd, Studs avowed that the Party would “reclaim the American Dream from the predators who have stolen it—that’s what this meeting is all about.” Commoner was best known for his research on the effects of radiation and his book on the environment, The Closing Circle. But part of his appeal to Terkel and other people on the left was presented in a different book, The Poverty of Power, in which Commoner went beyond the connection of science and politics and contended that environmental damage was directly connected to capitalism.
Stepping out of chronological order for a moment, it is important to note that Studs supported Dennis Kucinich’s brief presidential bid in 2004. Just prior to his ninety-second birthday, Studs wrote an article in The Nation entitled, “Kucinich Is the One.” Beginning with a repetition of what he had written in American Dreams: Lost and Found, Studs argued that Kucinich represented the possibilities of a grassroots elected President. He claimed that Kucinich was the Democrats only hope of obtaining the blue-collar Reagan vote. He even crafted a Bush-Kucinich debate. “Imagine him in a televised, coast-to-coast debate with Dubya. Blood wouldn’t flow, but it would be a knockout in the first round, and we’d have an honest-to-God working-class President for the first time in our history.” Forever hopeful, Studs continued, writing, “It’s a crazy thought, of course, but it’s quite possible, considering the roller-coaster nature of our times.” The publisher of The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel, recalled Studs at a campaign function that her mother, Jean Stein, organized for Kucinich. “He loved Kucinich. My mother gave a party for Dennis when he was going to run. Studs came to introduce Dennis and the funny thing was that everyone at the party wanted to nominate Studs to run for President after he spoke.”
It was the Gore-Bush election, however, that brings Studs’ politics front-and-center today. Again, Studs was a Ralph Nader supporter. In early October, Studs introduced Nader to ten thousand people at a University of Illinois-Chicago. Eddy Vetter played music and Studs shouted, "Gore or Bush, what's your choice? "Influenza or Pneumonia, what's your choice?" Yet, in both a Chicago Tribune article and a WBEZ interview shortly after the above oration, Studs opined that people in certain states might want to vote for Gore rather than Nader.
The 2000 election wasn’t decided until late December through a court ruling. After the election, Studs participated in the Nation Magazine annual political cruise. During the weeklong event, he joined in a panel discussion with long time Nation editor, Victor Navasky, lawyer and columnist Patricia Williams, journalist Eric Alterman, historian Larry Goodwyn, and Molly Ivens. The panel was called “The Ralph Nader Factor,” but Studs thought that the more appropriate title was, “Ralph Nader and the Democratic Leadership Council.”
Navasky was the panel host and much to Studs’ delight he convinced him to begin with a sermon. Playing the ham, he thanked “Brother Victor” and told the crowd, “You are looking at a sinner.”
I have sinned shamelessly and grievously in support of that Satanic cult headed by Ralph Nader. In fact, I spoke before ten thousand young people in my pavilion, exultant young paying ten bucks a copy to get in, wouldn’t pay a plug nickel to hit Gore or Bush, and then I was leading them down the garden path. I’ve sinned! Why do I feel so good when I sin?
Speaking about the Tribune article, Studs joked about repenting. His talk was a testament to his political acumen and cultural knowledge.
Even though I sinned for Nader, I am taking back my repentance, and I offer some apologies. It’s a mea culpa to certain young people who were at that rally… It was a letter… Tribune, five little lines. “Shame on Studs Terkel for betraying the Green Party and Ralph Nader’s candidacy. I heard Mr. Terkel speak at Nader’s Chicago rally in October. Was he who convinced me that I should vote my conscience and vote for Nader. He has done thousands of Nader supporters a disservice by making his vote switch public.” So I owe a mea culpa to them and to nobody else. From now on in, I’m gonna be Huck Finn rain or shine, amen.
With the sermon completed, each of the panelists took their turn. Eric Alterman argued that the two-party system was the reality. He then claimed that Nader’s candidacy ruined the possibility of electing of a progressive democrat. Compelled to respond, and speaking with a smile, Studs disagreed.
Now that’s what it’s all about, these kids are hungry, they’re a whole new generation who’ve broken through the miasma of this matter of the third party meaning nothing. The two major, of course there’s got to be a third force of some sort… So Nader’s not the issue. You’re right on, factually you’re right, but you’re truthfully wrong, because the issue is the movement itself and not Ralph Nader.
So what would have Studs said about Bernie or Clinton or Trump. What probably would have interested him the most were the young people who came out and supported Bernie. But what would he have said of Bernie’s support for Hillary as the lesser evil. I suspect his comments would have been much like Noam Chomsky’s? Maybe he would have first gently scolded Bernie for not going the independent route. I could see that. During the 1990s he didn’t hesitate to criticize Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council, or as Jesse Jackson named it, the Democratic Leisure Class. I suspect he would be just as critical of Hillary, but then would ask us to remember the Supreme Court. I only wish he was here to tell us.
Alan Wieder is an oral historian who lives in Portland, Oregon. He taught at the University of South Carolina for over two decades and his books include Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid and Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation.
 Dennis Kucinich was not a third party candidate but Studs’ definition was loose and he loved Kucinich.
 Studs Terkel, Citizen’s Party Convention, Cleveland, 1980.
 Studs Terkel, “Kucinich is the One,” The Nation, May 6, 2002.