At one of those Washington parties that are more fun in the movies than they are in real life, I approached a real-life senator and brought up the matter of Chicago--this before the election. Would it not be wonderful, I averred (I aver only at parties), if Bernard Epton, who initially never expected to win anyway, simply pulled out of the race. The senator flashed me the smile of dismay and said, "But he can win."
There is in that remark all you ever need to know about politics--its ethics, its philosophy, its morality. It is, like football, bridge and, until recently, war--about winning. After winning there is nothing else, and all the cliches apply--it's not everything, it's the only thing.
And that, I suppose, was what was on the minds of the Republican Party (if a party can be said to have a mind) or the White House (ditto) when it threw itself behind the candidacy of Bernard Epton, a reluctant and unlikely front man for white racism. The word from the White House and from Republican spokesmen everywhere was that the GOP could not lose in Chicago. Either it would get itself a mayor or it would get itself the loyalty of countless blue-collar voters. Never mind the nation and never mind even Chicago: the GOP could not lose.
For that reason, the Republican Party gave Chicago its best shot. It dispatched John Deardourff, a media master respected for both his talents and honor, who promptly dove right into the mud. It was he who coined the tag line "Epton--before it's too late." And it is too late for him now to say that he could not understand how anyone could read race into it.
In fact, it might be too late for the Republican Party to get out of the corner it has painted itself into. Somehow, the party of Lincoln has managed to transform itself into the party of Jim Crow. If it has not become identified with white racism, it has at least become the party you turn to when you want to express some sort of racist sentiment.
Blacks, of course, know this. They are now so solidly Democratic it's hard to believe that they were once just as solidly Republican. Franklin Roosevelt altered that, but it is not too much to say that the black vote was up for grabs until almost recently. Then, GOP opposition to virtually all civil rights legislation--exemplified by the voting records of such presidential candidates as Barry Goldwater and, much later, Gerald Ford--all but iced it. Chicago put it away.
It is of course foolish to argue in the context of politics about morality when the only morality recognized is the numbers. And the numbers, the GOP concluded, were on its side in Chicago. At most, it could have a mayor in office, making it harder for the dead to cast their usual Democratic ballots come 1984. But at minimum, the election would accustom normally Democratic blue-collar voters to the strange sensation of voting Republican. Having done it once and having not been struck dead as a result, they were then supposed to be able to do the same thing in 1984.
You could make the argument that the Chicago election was a perfect example of media hype. There is something to that. Chicago is not America. It is not even a typical big city. Its Democratic Machine protected it like an indulgent mother and by wagging a threatening finger, especially at Democratic administrations, Chicago managed to live in a racial time warp. Sometime in the next decade, Chicago will have to move into the 1980s.
But media hype in an age of media hype is not something to ignore. Whatever the actual ramifications of the Chicago election might be, one for sure is a hardening of the image that the Republican party is not for blacks. And if it is not for blacks (or women or the poor) then it is not for anyone who cares about social justice. And unless you believe that intolerance is the wave of the future, that things will get worse and not better, then what the Republican Party won in Chicago was the right to be on the wrong side of history. A couple or more contests like this and the GOP will, like its Chicago standard-bearer, not go from near victory to victory, but to oblivion instead.