Penthouse Retrospective

by Studs Terkel Originally Published: October, 1980

The American Dream | 40 Years Ago This Month

They’re afraid to commit themselves because there’s a yahoo out there raising all sorts of hell. It’s more important for them to be in office than to do something while they’re there. Instead of politicians, they’ve become technocrats, reading poll signs wherever they go.

They’re sitting there. Their calculation has become so finely tuned, so technical, that they’ve forgotten what the public really wants. The public doesn’t want this shit. Carter got on national television and said: “We’ll have to sacrifice because we’re gonna run out of energy one of these days.” Hell, everybody knows that.

It’s a finite resource. Why does it always come that 200 million people sacrifice and 50,000 at the top are never called upon to sacrifice? What kind of shit is that? The public doesn’t know the details of the energy program. It’s too complicated. But they can smell a rat.

Today, I don’t think you can accomplish any more inside than you can out. The only victories you’re allowed to win here are marginal ones. It doesn’t mean a goddamn.

The 13-day filibuster Howard Metzenbaum and I conducted was, in a sense, a soldier’s small mutiny, a takeover. We lost, as all such takeovers do, but the issue attracted the country’s attention. That’s the purpose of a filibuster. I know of the pressures on us from our peers, from the outside. The Washington Post denounced us. I did it because Pete Stavrianos, my administrative assistant, challenged me: “When I asked you to run again, you said it didn’t matter much whether you were here or not. If you can stop those bastards from deregulating natural gas, you’ll have done more than you’ve done in your entire eight years in Congress.” So I said: “Why not?”

I had about a thousand letters, telegrams, phone calls, from around the country. It lost because we got no cooperation from the White House. The vice-president came down on the last day of the filibuster and conspired with the majority leader to break it.

One thing I watched very carefully during the natural-gas debate — the heavy concentration of advertising on television by Exxon. Do you know where it was concentrated? In Washington, D.C. Heavier than around the country. Senators are sitting there thinking: “My God, my constituents are watching this stuff.” It started seeping into these guys voting on the floor here every day. And they didn’t know it. They were taken by the commercials.

My father came from· Lebanon. He landed in South Dakota in 1898. He was a pack peddler. My dad was very grateful to America. He was a very, very poor farmer in Lebanon. That’s the reason he left. It’s a beautiful country, except that they were dirt poor.

In 1910, after he’d saved enough money to buy a buggy and a horse, he bought a store. In 1920 he opened another one. He went bankrupt two or three times during the depression. He always gave credit to the people who lived there, Indians and non-Indians alike. The Indians were the only ones who paid him back. The whites didn’t. (Laughs) He always said: “Make sure nobody goes hungry.”

As a kid, who had dreams? I was eating. Three meals a day. I wanted to be a storekeeper like my dad had been. My parents were uneducated. They couldn’t read or write English, but they could read and write Arabic. My father became reasonably successful for a small-town merchant. He wound up owning a couple of stores and a small ranch. It was on an Indian reservation, Rosebud. You’re somewhat blinded, being so close to people. I suppose I was somewhat of a racist when I grew up. I patronized the Indians, spoke down to them. I grew up with Indian kids and went to school with them, but I always thought Indians are inferior to us with lighter skins. I only found out in later years, when I went to college, what I was like.

We were always told there was an American Dream, where people have a right to be treated equal. I know that just doesn’t happen. According to the advertising campaign, as long as you let the people who are running this country run it, you can experience the American Dream. You’re gonna stay out of jail, you’re not gonna get in trouble with The Man, if you just let him do what he wants. I don’t think the dream exists. The privileged can always manage to get a law passed to legalize whatever it is they want. They’ve found ways not to go to jail when they take property or rights away from somebody else. City or farm, it doesn’t matter.

I understand precisely what the oil companies wanted in deregulation of gas. They wanted to plunder the public purse. If I were an oil company president, I would probably be doing the same thing. What I didn’t understand was that people who were here, ostensibly representing the public, my fellow senators, would go along with it. We have a government that is ostensibly run by the people, for the people. It’s not true. We have a government run by the establishment, for the establishment. If there are some droppings left over for the people, well and good. No more than droppings.

One of these days those resources are gonna run out. There will no longer be an abundance. You will see the United States, 50 years from now, in the same condition as underdeveloped countries, fightin’ over fewer and fewer scraps. You’ll see the economic, social, and political system changing. The system we now have operates solely on the basis of greed. It works fairly well when there’s enough, so that even the greedy are satiated. But when we run out, there’s gonna be a catastrophe. There’ll be a violent political upheaval. There’ll be a change in our system, probably toward socialism. Those people who abhor the word, the idea, if their foresight were not foreclosed by greed, could change the system, could avoid socialism or whatever may come down the road, by some means where rights were balanced more evenly than they are today. It could be fascism, too.

Either the American Dream has changed a lot since we first learned about it, or some people have some truly crazy dreams these days.

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