Richard Reeves

The New Know Nothings

CHICAGO -- The governor of Illinois came back home last Wednesday after five days in Havana. You remember Havana? Cigars, Hemingway, commies with beards, baseball, a big threat to the national security of the United States?

A real powerhouse, that Cuba. So powerful and seductive that it is against the law -- American law -- to travel there. In fact, the U.S. Department of State made no-no noises when Gov. George Ryan decided to fly there with a group of local businessmen hoping to drum up future Cuba-Illinois commerce. The Illinois bunch brought medical supplies; the governor went to Mass, visited a synagogue, and brought back a 7-year-old boy named Alfonso for an operation in North Carolina.

Then the State Department said he was being "used" by that devil in fatigues, President-for-life Fidel Castro. Maybe, but who cares? This is yesterday for most everyone except for Miami entrepreneurs ready to bid on beach properties when Castro finally disappears, and for a collection of fools in Congress. It is not that the rest of us don't know what Castro is. As Ryan said: "Basically that's the problem of Cuba: Fidel Castro."

What I worry about is being befuddled-for-life by American policy toward Cuba. The travel ban has been in place since I was in high school and may still be when I'm eligible for Social Security. It's nuts.

The reason for the nuttiness, as Gov. Ryan, a Republican, noted the other day, is that Cuban exiles -- who are really Americans now pretending to be exiles -- vote for or give money to politicians who hint they are ready to nuke Castro. They send off planes to drop leaflets on the island, then the planes get shot down and Congress adds another sanction or two for another 10 years.

Terrible, that shooting down. But can you imagine what would happen to a Cuban plane trying to drop leaflets on the White House? Star Wars! Ryan won my political heart forever when reporters peppered him with questions about consorting with the enemy by saying, "I don't represent Miami."

But a lot of politicians across the country act as if they do. The ignorance of the whole thing is enough to make you laugh. We're still broadcasting propaganda into Cuba -- Radio Marti and Television Marti, it's called -- telling the natives that if they overthrow Castro, GIs will come with Hershey bars and chewing gum. Actually, while I like what Ryan did, I had to wince when I saw that the governor's party really was throwing sticks of gum -- Wrigley's, I'm sure -- to kids on the street.

Pathetic -- the gum, Castro and American policy! But what can you expect with the rebirth of American Know-Nothingness?

President Clinton is attacking "neo-isolationism" in America, as if the problem goes back to Midwestern nativist attitudes early in this century, lasting only until the day in 1941 when Japanese planes stopped by Pearl Harbor to drop leaflets and bombs. What we are really seeing and hearing now goes back to the 1850s and the emergence of the Know-Nothing Party.

The Know-Nothings were orginally a secret party whose members answered all questions with the phrase, "I know nothing." Well, it turned out that they may not have known what they were for, but they did know what they were against: foreigners. After a couple of years the party went public as the American Party -- and won some elections, too -- trying to stop the immigration of Irish and German Catholics into a country founded by British Protestants.

The Know-Nothings did not last a full decade that time around, but there were enough of them, particularly in the great state of Illinois, that in 1855 a local Republican politician named Abraham Lincoln felt compelled to write a letter saying:

"I am not a Know-Nothing. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? When the Know-Nothings get control ... it will read 'All men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners and Catholics.'"

Well, luckily they didn't get control then. George Ryan, for one, never would have gotten here. But you can't kill the know-nothing idea with a stick -- and there has been enough ignorance in America still to keep the home fires burning against Cuba for 40 years.

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