Will we talk ourselves into a real depression?

Kerfuffel - what a wonderful word! It sounds like what it means, a disturbance or uproar. The intensifying kerfuffel between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama started before Martin Luther King Day with a disagreement over who should get the credit for initiating the substantial advances in civil rights, Dr. King himself with his speeches and marches, or President Lyndon Johnson who persuaded Congress to enact the 1964 voting rights act.

I thought back to a conversation with Johnson when he was majority leader of the Senate in the late 1950s. In my position on the editorial page staff of The Washington Post, I was invited to what others had described as a charm session in Johnson’s office. I asked about civil rights legislation.

"You northern liberals," Johnson replied, are focusing on the wrong thing. The first effort ought to be to guarantee that black citizens could exercise their voting rights without intimidation. Once blacks could vote freely in Southern states, he said, politicians would pay attention to them and other rights would follow.

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Of course it took a leader of Dr. King’s vision and determination to articulate the hope and stimulate the drive to achieve. But it took a leader with Johnson’s parliamentary skill and persuasion to win the acceptance and even support of key Southern senators. Which, if either one, deserves the most credit I do not really know.

What I do know is that when I went to London as a correspondent in the summer of 1961, Washington was a segregated city – in its restaurants, hotels and transportation. When I returned four years later I was surprised and pleased to find that segregation on streetcars and buses had been abolished, there was a black teller at the bank and many black families were eating at restaurants where they had not previously been welcome. We rejoiced at a seeming miracle.

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"What would happen to working people in Salisbury in case of a real recession?" a friend asked. "Would I have to get yet another job?" Of course I didn’t have an answer. Although the Tri-State corner has survived several moderate to severe recessions over the last half-century with only modest dislocations, I can only guess at what might happen in a more severe slowdown.

But I well remember the Depression as it affected my family in Evanston, Ill. There was much talk about the fall of the stock market, but we didn’t really see much effect until1931 and 1932 although we read about breadlines and soup kitchens elsewhere. My father, who worked in Chicago for du Pont, endured two 10 per cent salary cuts that lowered the family standard of living, but he never lost his job. Dad had just deposited his monthly paycheck when the bank closed, not to reopen until some months later after reorganization and never redeeming its debts 100 per cent. Other families were less fortunate than we; the father of one friend committed suicide when he could not meet his obligations. Chicago school teachers were paid in scrip, or promises to pay at a later date, that could be cashed only at a substantial discount. You thought twice before buying a pound of hamburger for 18 cents, a loaf of bread for 10 or a pound of butter for 25.

When a new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, told us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, confidence began to rebuild. Numerous government programs to provide work ranged from the Civilian Conservation Corps to various public works projects. These fulfilled some long-standing needs with constructive results, but the Depression did not fully end until the enlarged defense programs on the eve of World War II fully engaged the economy.

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The outlook is very different today. President Bush has moved promptly to stimulate the economy and Congress is sure to enact his $145 billion economic package. The Federal Reserve Board has reduced interest rates another 3�4 per cent. These measures may not be enough or the right kind of assistance, but there is general recognition that the president and Congress have a basic responsibility to act together and do whatever proves necessary to revive the economy.

You can’t blame people for worrying. Prudence is a good rule, but especially in small towns we need to realize that if people suddenly stop buying and begin hoarding, local businesses will be hurt first. Normality is the best policy.

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A column by Verlyn Klinkenborg in The New York Times listing various automobiles he has owned recalled some personal history. My maternal grandfather owned one of the first cars in Dayton, Ohio, that had a lever rather than a wheel for steering. I remember my grandmother telling that he could not remember how to stop, finally drove the vehicle into a ditch and rammed a fencepost into the engine. That stopped it.

Among their cars I remember a Pierce-Arrow with the hand brake on the running board and a Cadillac with a pump on the dashboard for pressurizing the gasoline feed. Grandmother herself had an electric car with big windows, and driving with her felt like riding in a fishbowl. My parents had a Model-T, then an Oldsmobile, a long low Studebaker President and a succession of Pontiacs.

I first learned to drive on a Model-T Ford delivery truck at Burt Lake, Mich., where my grandparents had a cottage. They lent me a seven-passenger 1926 Buick that got eight miles to the gallon for commuting to a summer job in Harbor Springs. After college I owned a 1928 Essex, a 1937 Ford and a 1940 Chevrolet. Mary Lou and I acquired a 1935 Chrysler when I was stationed in New Orleans, stored it while I was overseas and traded it for a 1934 Chevrolet after the end of the war.

Our first postwar cars were two Nashes, followed by a Plymouth sedan, two Ford station wagons, a Plymouth wagon, an ancient Volkswagen Microbus and Ford Zodiac in England, then a Chrysler wagon, Peugeot various, Toyotas and finally a long line of Subarus. We figure we have done our bit with gas guzzlers and now the auto manufacturers owe all of us some really economical vehicles that they are fully capable of making.

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