Yesterday evening, I headed to Greenwich Village for an evening with Senator Elizabeth Warren and some twenty thousand of her closest friends. I’m so glad I did. Senator Warren’s Washington Square Park speech was masterful. The candidate is often tagged in the media for being “professorial,” and that’s true. But those who make the assertion often do so with a bias that being intensely smart is somehow a bad thing in American politics. In truth, people like smarts. They like teachers when they are engaged and engaging, and the notion that a thoughtful, detailed message only resonates with a particular audience says more about white, liberal, college-educated self-reverence, than it does about anything else.
The simple truth is that people like to feel smarter today than they felt yesterday. That’s just human. What they don’t like is condescension. That’s human, too. Delivering a message of thought and heft, without coming across as a snoot is Elizabeth Warren’s wheelhouse, and watching her weave that magic last night, I felt proud to be seeing its like again in New York. I say “again,” because this State has produced some of the greatest political thinkers — and thinking politicians — the world has ever known, including the gentleman of whom I was reminded many, many times last night: The Professor himself, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
I first heard Pat speak in 1976, when I was nine years old. It was out on the hustings, in the thriving metropolis of Port Dickinson, NY just north of my hometown of Binghamton. As I recall, there may have been a Little League Baseball game, or maybe a local softball tournament. Pat was running for his first term in the United States Senate. My dad was running for reelection to the New York State Assembly, and gathered that August afternoon were the good Port Dickinsonian townsfolk. It was not unlike a much smaller-scale version of what happened yesterday evening in Washington Square. Back then, just a few months after the nation’s Bicentennial celebrations, Pat gave a speech that drew upon the origins of the town. It was a history that many of the people at that rally likely did not know, but Pat — without dumbing anything down — told us all how Port Dickinson was once a regional hub of the long-extinct Chenango Canal. In the mid-19th century, the Chenango Canal was the 100-mile-long towpath waterway that connected the Susquehanna River to the Erie Canal, and by so doing it made this little spot of Earth a crucial part of a transportation network that reached outward to the whole wide world, from the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi to the Ohio River Valley, and then on to the Great Lakes and the Allegheny Plateau, linking our town to the Hudson River Valley, New York City and south down our own river, the mighty Susquehanna, our trade flowing onward to the open ocean through the glorious Chesapeake Bay.
Even though I was just a kid, I was transfixed by the story that said to the Port Dickinsonians, RIGHT HERE is crucially important. YOUR town. YOUR history. YOUR people. It was brilliant. It was professorial. It was, as I would learn as the years went by, classic Pat. And I’d not seen anything like it in American politics until Washington Square Park last night, where another Oklahoma born, humble-beginnings, Ivy League intellectual cast the same brilliant spell.
Senator Warren’s speech, a rousing condemnation of corruption, was built around a framework of knowing your history. Specifically, the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. She began by gesturing to her left, just to the east of the park where the factory was housed, literally one block away. She then recounted the parts of the history we all knew: The locked doors, the poor ventilation, the fire spreading throughout the top floors, the women at the windows, the ladders of the fire trucks only reaching the sixth floor, the women jumping from the tenth. Then she told of their bodies hitting the pavement at a terrible force. As she did, I’m sure I was not the only one in the crowd who remembered our own experiences with that horror far more recently.
Then, in a brilliant segue to her main campaign theme, she told of how it was the CORRUPTION of greedy men, greasing the wheels in City Hall and Albany that allowed such shoddy conditions to prevail in those years. The bridge was artfully accomplished and as she swung into the meat of her late-summer stump-speech, I silently gave credit to her team of writers. It was smooth transition, and not easily accomplished. What followed were her body blows against Trump, but also against generations of failed politics that have allowed the nation to become CORRUPTED by the power of feckless politicians. It was the CORRUPTION of pernicious wealth disparity, the CORRUPTION by the uber-rich and global corporations, the CORRUPTION by a lack of economic patriotism. CORRUPTION was the problem and when you spend fifteen paragraphs building that litany and hitting that cadence, then the payoff is, without ever saying the words directly, all about purifying the national soul.
As she was building that case, I realized that poor Donald Trump has no idea what’s gonna hit him if she’s the candidate, which I sorely hope she will be. He thinks he’s taking on Pocahontas? He’s lost. Liz Warren knows her history, and she’s right now storing up the energy to run an old-line, blood-raising, spirit-elevating campaign of national resurrection in the manner of the classic Tent Revivals that burned across America in the mid-19th century from places like New York City, all the way to Port Dickinson and beyond.
Being a great speaker AND professor, Senator Warren knew how to bring it all back home, too. She had to return to where we were in the moment, at Washington Square Park, and the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and so she gestured behind her, toward Washington Mews. She told us that on the day of the fire, March 25, 1911, in one of the townhouses nearby, sat a woman named Frances Perkins. Perkins, a labor-rights organizer, was visiting a friend when they heard the screams. The rushed out into the park, and saw the smoke rolling up into the sky. They went to the Asch Building on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. They saw the women fall. They saw the women land.
And then, in the wake of the tragedy, they got to work.
Here, I’ll admit something that you’d never ask of an audience member at a political rally. I’m a student of history — and I have been a teacher of history — and I had never before heard Frances Perkins’ name. From the smattering of applause at her initial mention, I’m going to say that perhaps only ten percent of the audience had. But Warren told her story in the historical context of RIGHT HERE, in OUR TOWN, living OUR HISTORY, and connecting OUR PEOPLE to the rest of the world. That made the lesson stick. And at the end of it, I knew something I didn’t know before. I felt smarter for being there and that is the secret to being a politically professorial. Delivering the lesson that allows your audience to feel better about themselves for knowing something at the end of it. That’s Moynihan-level professoring. That’s Moynihan-level politicking. And it will work from the Hudson to the Pacific Coast Highway.
As noted, a great professor makes you feel smarter, and it’s only natural to want to share what you’ve learned, so here we go:
Frances Perkins, in the wake of the Triangle tragedy, organized with the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union to demand significant, structural change that would end the CORRUPTION that had cost those women their lives. Shortly after the fire, Frances Perkins and the ILGWU led a march of half-a-million New Yorkers down Fifth Avenue demanding change — all before women even had the right to vote. After that, Perkins followed Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Albany when he became Governor of our great state. There she helped to rewrite the labor laws of New York. Subsequently, when FDR went to Washington, he brought Frances Perkins on as Labor Secretary, making her the first woman to ever serve on the Cabinet in our nation’s capital. And as Senator Warren pointed out, whenever you see clearly marked emergency exit signs in a building, that’s Frances Perkins. When you think about fair labor laws, child-labor laws, and minimum-wage laws, that’s Frances Perkins. When you think of welfare for the poorest Americans, that’s Frances Perkins. And when you think about women changing the world, that’s Frances Perkins — and all you women and allies in the audience — that’s you, too!
Now, I note that I didn’t know the name Frances Perkins before that speech, but I’ll not forget it soon. Nor will the rest of the twenty-thousand folks in the audience. And I won’t soon forget the professorial, passionate woman who taught me about her on a September evening a just a little over a year before she became the first female President of the United States of America.
Pat Moynihan would be proud. I have no doubt about it. I think he’d vote for her, too. And you know what, I bet those folks out in Port Dickinson — the ones who have never forgotten that their little town is connected to the whole wild world by a canal, by history, and by people just like them — would vote for Elizabeth Warren, as well. And I bet that when they get their chance to hear her speak at a Little League Game or a local softball tournament, they’ll remember back to a day in August of 1976 when a tall, gentleman — incidentally one who was also originally from from Oklahoma — came to town and taught them something new, something fascinating, and something real about themselves and the lives they lead. And just like that day, it will be a story they’ll want to tell their kids and grandkids about a lifetime later. They will do so because professorial politicians like this are so very rare. They make you feel good about being smarter, and that is a winning ticket. Guaranteed.