Sunday, February 21, 2010

Those Not-So-Civil Congresses Past

The present universal longing for collegial congresses past conjures Oscar Wilde's observation that, "Memory is the diary that chronicles things that never happened and couldn't possibly have happened."

Sen. Evan Bayh's (D-Ind.) decision to bail on all that Senate roughhousing implies that things have never been so bad and sparks nostalgia for a more civic group of players now gone from the national stage.

Oh for those civil congresses of the past!

Examination of a long-ago tete-a-tete involving Rep. Vito Marcantonio of New York (top) and Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi provides a little perspective.

Marcantonio's far-left politics and vanguard positions on civil rights often clashed with the "Pride of Poplarville's" views, but things came to a particularly nasty head in a 1945 letter exchange between the two elected officials.

It was then that Democrat Bilbo responded to an unpleasant missive from one Josephine Piccolo of 93 Garfield Place, Brooklyn, with letter of his own employing the salutation, "My Dear Dago."

Marcantonio, who represented East Harlem's 18th Congressional District, had, at different times, run on Democratic and Republican tickets, and sometimes both, in gaining his frequent, voter-stamped trips to Washington D.C.

But his political identity slowly merged with that of the American Labor Party, formed in 1936 by the needle trades unions in an effort at funneling New York's left-wing votes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Along with his annual anti-lynching measure, persistent efforts on behalf of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, and feverish opposition to the Taft-Hartley labor reform bill, "Marc's" electoral success depended heavily on a unique, storefront, retail servicing of his Italian-American constituency.

Although Piccolo hailed from beyond Marcantonio's bailiwick, "dagos" anywhere could feel the sting of Bilbo's insensitivity. The radical congressman rose to her defense and wrote the Mississippian demanding an apology, "if you have any shred of decency left."

On July 24, Bilbo fired back. He confessed to being completely "astounded" at Marcantonio's "audacious, arrogant, and presumptious [sic] letter."

And he was only getting started.

Marcantonio's advice, wrote Bilbo in a fit senatorial decorum, would be "the last in the world to which I would give any consideration whatsoever."

He continued that, if Marcantonio's gang, --"and I dare say many of them are gangsters from the sin-soaked, communistic sections of the great metropolis of New York" -- had their way, "our great American dual scheme of government, with its freedoms and ways of life that have made this country great, would soon be a thing of the past."

And that was just the first page.

Marcantonio, a man House Speaker Sam Rayburn once called the third best parliamentarian he'd ever seen, kept his July 25 response short, but sharp.

He wrote that Bilbo had, "aided Hitler in the war by spewing out race hatred on the floor of the Senate." He called the southerner a "Nazi collaborationist" during the conflict, adding that since its termination, "you are Hitler's inconsolable political male widow."

And there was more. More than enough to make a present-day cable news anchor blush.

Marcantonio is something of a New York historical treasure awaiting an informed reconsideration. Bilbo, his white supremacist beliefs aside, did good things for his home state as both U.S. Senator and Governor.

But their hot Summer of '45 clash again recalls Wilde who noted that, "Arguments are to be avoided; they are always vulgar and often convincing."

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