John Kass: Who else, Mr. President?
When President Barack Obama hauled off and slapped American small-business owners in the mouth the other day, I wanted to dream of my father. But I didn't have to close my eyes to see my dad. I could do it with my eyes open.
All I had to do was think of the driveway of our home and my dad's car gone before dawn, that old white Chrysler with a push-button transmission. It always started but there was a hole in the floor and his feet got wet in the rain. So he patched it with concrete mix and kept on driving it to the little supermarket he ran with my Uncle George.
He'd return home long after dark, physically and mentally exhausted, take a plate of food, talk with us for a few minutes, then flop in that big chair in front of the TV. Even before his cigarette was out, he'd begin to snore.
The next day he'd wake up and do it again. Day after day, decade after decade. Weekdays and weekends, no vacations, no time to see our games, no money for extras, not even for McDonald's. My dad and Uncle George, and my mom and my late Aunt Mary, killing themselves in their small supermarket on the South Side of Chicago.
There was no federal bailout money for us. No Republican corporate welfare. No Democrat handouts. No bipartisan lobbyists working the angles. No Tony Rezkos. No offshore accounts. No Obama bucks.
Just two immigrant brothers and their families risking everything, balancing on the economic high wire, building a business in America. They sacrificed, paid their bills, counted pennies to pay rent and purchase health care and food and not much else. And for their troubles they were muscled by the politicos, by the city inspectors and the chiselers and the weasels, all those smiling extortionists who held the government hammer over all of our heads.
I thought about this after I heard what Obama told a campaign crowd the other day, speaking about business owners and why they were successful.
“You didn't get there on your own,” Obama said. “I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”
If you've got a business, you didn't build that? Somebody else made that happen?
Somebody else, Mr. President? Who, exactly? Government?
One of my earliest memories as a boy at the store was that of the government men coming from City Hall. One was tall and beefy. The other was wiry. They wanted steaks.
We didn't eat red steaks at home or yellow bananas. We took home the brown bananas and the brown steaks because we couldn't sell them. But the government men liked the big, red steaks, the fat rib-eyes two to a shrink-wrapped package. You could put 20 or so in a shopping bag.
“Thanks, Greek,” they'd say.
That was government.
We didn't go to movies or out to restaurants. Everything went into the business. Uncle George and Dad never bought what they could not afford. The store employed people and the workers fed their families and educated their children and put them through college. They were good people, all of them. We worked together and worked hard, but none worked harder than the bosses.
It's the same story with so many other businesses in America, immigrants and native-born. The entrepreneurs risk everything, their homes, their children's college funds, their hearts, all for a chance at the dream — independence and a small business of their own.
Most often, they fail and fall to the ground without a government parachute. But some get up and start again.
When I was grown and gone from home, my parents finally managed to save a little money. After all those years of hard work and denying themselves things, they had enough to buy a place in Florida and a fishing boat in retirement. Dad died only a few years later. You wouldn't call them rich. But Obama might.
Obama's changed. Gone is that young knight drawing the sword from the stone, selling Hopium to the adoring media, preaching an end to the broken politics of the past. These days, he wears a new presidential persona — the multimillionaire with the Chicago clout, playing the class warrior, fighting for that second term.
And he offers an American dream much different from my father's. Open your eyes and you can see it too. He stands there at the front of the mob, in his shirt sleeves, swinging that government hammer, exhorting the crowd to use its votes and take what it wants.
John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. George F. Will is on vacation.