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Movements come and go

| Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

At the stroke of midnight on Jan. 16, 1920, a balding William Jennings Bryan, the great orator of his time, finished a soaring speech to a crowd that had packed Washington, D.C.'s First Congregation Church to celebrate the passing of the 18th Amendment.

That “triumph” of the “progressive” movement — the prohibition of alcohol sales — had begun. And, in the true spirit of American debate, tribal politics and political activism, a movement that took shape in the 1850s took only 70 years to become law.

Ten years later, it would be repealed.

First Congregation Church still occupies the same G Street corner. Once the official church of President Calvin Coolidge, it now is housed in a shiny LEED-certified “green” mixed-use building, not the stone structure where Bryan spoke.

Bryan was the Democrats' perennial wild-card presidential candidate who never made it to the White House. His first try was in 1896, in a realigning election against Ohio's former governor, William McKinley; it was Bryan's most successful race and, in subsequent attempts in 1900 and 1908, he shed support but never popularity.

Today's consumers of politics often forget perspective; they believe we are in the most tumultuous, toxic political era ever and that there is no turning back.

That is a tough statement to certify, considering that, in the 20 years which inspired Bryan to seek the presidency (1876-96), not one president served more than one term. In the same period, House majorities turned over by huge numbers, sometimes hundreds of seats — a perfect example of a toxic, unsettled electorate.

Bryan, a unique combination of populism and insurgency, appealed to voters in both parties. Without winning, he broke the stalemate of one-term presidencies and House majorities flipping every two years.

His positions were always outside the Democrats' grid: He wanted to expand the federal government's power to provide for the working class, called for a graduated income tax and demanded free-silver coinage and a bureaucratic state that would protect citizens from unrestrained corporate power.

“The Great Commoner” originated the Democrats' platform — one that still exists — of redistributing wealth and being “the party of the people.” What went overlooked was that he became quite wealthy, thanks to a lucrative speaking circuit, which put him at odds (as is true of many progressives today) with his own damn-the-wealthy rhetoric.

Lost to Bryan and progressives, as they celebrated Prohibition's start, was the economic impact of this “reform”: Alcohol was the nation's fifth-largest industry and, with the stroke of a pen, tens of thousands lost jobs in that and related industries. In short order, Prohibition's enforcement caused an enormous national financial burden, and bootlegging robbed Treasury coffers.

A congressional investigation (the Wickersham Commission) found two-thirds of the federal law-enforcement budget went to policing Prohibition.

Bryan's “progressive” movement was championed by both parties. In fact, the first attempt to enforce a national health-care law began with Teddy Roosevelt's promise of free care for all in his failed 1912 presidential campaign as head of the newly formed Progressive Party.

Like Prohibition, national health care took decades — nearly 100 years — to go from movement to law. Like Prohibition, it has swung in popularity, mostly falling on the unpopular side.

And, like Prohibition, President Obama's health-care law seems set to financially strain government, business and the “common man” that politicians so often champion.

“The reign of tears is over,” said evangelist Billy Sunday on the day Prohibition was signed into law. “The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs.”

In March 2010 in the White House East Room, Vice President Joe Biden evangelized in his own way while congratulating Obama on signing his health-care bill into law. He whispered into Obama's ear that “it's a big (expletive) deal.”

A lesson about American politics is to be learned here, one that people who live in the moment tend to forget: Political movements are just that ­­— movements, sliding in and out of favor, often without notice.

Some components of these movements last, certainly. Yet, typically, the loudest is the first to go.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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