Published when Studs Terkel was ninety-one years old, this astonishing oral history tackles one of the famed journalist’s most elusive subjects: Hope. Where does it come from? What are its essential qualities? How do we sustain it in the darkest of times? An alternative, more personal chronicle of the “American century,” Hope Dies Last is a testament to the indefatigable spirit that Studs has always embodied, and an inheritance for those who, by taking a stand, are making concrete the dreams of today.
A former death row inmate who served nearly twenty years for a crime he did not commit discusses his never-ending fight for justice. Tom Hayden, author of The Port Huron Statement, contemplates the legacy of 1960s student activism. Liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith reflects on the enduring problem of corporate malfeasance. From a doctor who teaches his young students compassion to the retired brigadier general who flew the Enola Gay over Hiroshima, these interviews tell us much about the power of the American dream and the force of individuals who advocate for a better world. With grace and warmth, Terkel’s subjects express their secret hopes and dreams. Taken together, this collection of interviews tells an inspiring story of optimism and persistence, told in voices that resonate with the eloquence of conviction.
“The value of Hope Dies Last lies not in what it teaches readers about its narrow subject, but in the fascinating stories it reveals, and the insight it allows into the vast range of human experience.” —The A.V. Club
“Very Terkelesque—by now the man requires an adjective of his own.” —Margaret Atwood, The New York Times Review of Books
“An American treasure.” —Cornel West
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About the Author
Date of Birth:May 16, 1912
Date of Death:October 31, 2008
Place of Birth:New York, NY
Place of Death:Chicago, IL
Education:J.D., University of Chicago, 1934
Read an Excerpt
MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON
Representative Dennis Kucinich
Congressman from Ohio. He is fifty-six. When I first met him in 1978, he was mayor of Cleveland. "The Boy Mayor," he was called; at thirty-two, he had the appearance of a teenage bellhop.
I Always Have Looked at each day with a sense of excitement, a sense of optimism, a sense of wonder and joy at the possibilities of that new day. I've had that since I was a child. I was growing up tough and growing up absurd. I was on the streets a lot. That's where I got my education. I made friends with all kinds of people, black and white. I'd stop in, talk to them, and run errands.
When I was in grade school, to pay for my tuition I would scrub floors and help with janitorial duties at the Catholic school. In high school, I worked as a caddy. I carried two bags. They called it workin' doubles, going forty-five holes a day, six days a week. I believe in the work ethic. There's a tremendous dignity in work. And it doesn't matter what it is. What some consider menial, I found to be just a chance to make a living. Work hard, get ahead, that was my American dream.
This is a city run by the Mayflower aristocracy. It's as if the people didn't even exist here. Until recently. When I looked around, I saw many of the kids I grew up with trapped, not able to get as far as they would have liked. I started to wonder, What the heck is this? No matter how hard they work, they can't get ahead. Seeing all these people working their heads off, you find out the system is rigged.
When I first started out, I didn't question the institutions. I never really put it together. I think it was the Vietnam War. I'd see that some people were profiting, when tens of thousands of Americans were dying. Friends of mine went over there and they died. Kids I rode the bus with to school. I started to think, This is a dirty business. I'd better start to find out about it.
Whenever I'd see something that was unfair, I said so. I was out-spoken as a child. I'd raise my hand in class if I disagreed. I would always offer my opinion, even if no one was interested in listening. My mother taught me how to read when I was three years old. I read Emerson's essay on self-reliance when I was in the fifth grade. She read all the English poets, and from that I started my own exploration, at a very early age.
Now, like many young people in her generation, when World War Two occurred, she went to work in the factories right out of high school. Just as the war was ending, she married my dad.
Once I knew how to read, I was off on my own. My father used to call his friends in on Sundays. He'd entertain them with traditional boilermakers, shot and a beer, and also have me read the Sunday newspaper, so he could show me off. I was four years old at the time. Sometimes I'd read the sports page, sometimes I'd read the funnies. We had a big family; I was the oldest of seven. Every time we expanded, we had to move. We were always renters. My parents never really owned their own home. My dad's been a truck driver ever since he got out of the service as a marine. He's gung ho. His dream was to have all his boys in the marines. My brother Frank served four years, two and a half in Vietnam. My brother Gary served five years. My father never questioned authority. His authority was the guy who ran the trucking company.
My parents had a lot of ups and downs. From the time I was born till the time I was seventeen years old, we lived in about twenty-one different places. It was a lot of poverty, illness. Even though my dad was a good worker, he had injuries that caused him problems. He was hurt a few times on the job. There were medical bills. My mom gave birth to, I think, a total of nine children. Two didn't make it through childbirth.
We moved from house to house, trying to find a place that would take the number of children in this expanded family. There was a lot of upheaval, dislocation. There's a sense in which my own experience growing up doesn't really square with the optimism that I have. There was a time when within a period of about a year, we may have lived in six different places, including a car. We were five children, two adults, and a dog living in this car. It was a Packard. We didn't have a place to stay, so we stayed in the car, our whole family. We used to park the car on the edge of the steel mills. We'd use the bathrooms of the taverns in the neighborhood. We'd go and buy bologna sandwiches and white bread and some mustard.
In the evenings, I'd look out the window at this big sleeve of flame that was reaching towards the skies, coming out of the basic oxygen furnace of the steel mill. That pillar of flame gave me a sense of security and hope. It lit the night and it lit the darkness, and this child, with his nose pressed against the window of this car, was just agog at this incredible vision of light just brightening up the night. I had a sense that everything was OK. When I finally got tired of watching the flame over the steel mills, I would curl up on the floor-boards of the backseat and go to sleep.
At that point, my country was my mother and father and brothers and sisters. That's what I knew about America. My religious education has always been an important part of my life: I had this understanding that even when all else appeared to be lost, I should hang on to my hopes.
In the late sixties, I didn't go right from high school to college. I worked for two and a half years. I rented an apartment above the steel mills, in the same neighborhood where The Deer Hunter was filmed. It was an awe-inspiring sight when you'd see the smokestacks against the starry night.
I was able to save up to attend Cleveland State University. I was there for three and a half years. After that, I had two jobs. I worked at St. Alexis Hospital as an orderly, then a surgical technician. I'd get up at six-thirty in the morning, I'd start at St. Alexis by seven-thirty, and at four-thirty I'd leave St. Alexis. By five o'clock, I'd start my evening job at the Plain Dealer, where I worked till two-thirty in the morning. I was a copy boy there. I learned about the city from being in that newsroom. This was before computers and before they sanitized, a real gritty-type journalism.
In '67, I made my first run for public office. I was still working as a copy boy. I was twenty. I was answering the phones at the city room one day, and somebody called from a bar, drunk, slurring every word. He was talking about running for city council. Wait a minute, I thought. If somebody inebriated and half-conscious wants to run for public office, how does anyone actually run for public office? So I asked my city editor, "How does somebody run for city council?" And he said, "Why? Are you interested?" I thought a moment and said, "I am."
The next day I went down to the board of elections and took out petitions. The Plain Dealer immediately wrote a story saying: Protest with a guitar? Not this candidate. He's twenty. And they had a picture of me, at twenty years old, trying to look like I was much older. It was pretty funny. It made the front page. I lost that election, but I ran a good race because I went door-to-door and talked to people. I didn't know anybody in politics. My dad had a friend interested in politics who said, "Dennis, you really want to be councilman?" I said, "Yes." He said, "And you want to win?" I said, "Of course." He said, "If you go and knock on every door in that ward, you'll win."
I started in early August, campaigned all the way through to November, knocked on every door, and came closer than anyone had ever come to defeating this particular guy. People just couldn't believe I was a candidate, but I'd talk about safety in the neighborhood, about air quality, about the condition of the streets, about whether the streetlights were working or not. I learned the importance of taking care of the real concerns that people had. People want someone who will be out there to articulate their hopes and to talk about their dreams. I saw that as my job. The next time around, I beat him and became a member of the city council.
By the time 1972 came around, I ended up being an antiwar candidate for Congress. I won the primary and lost a close race in the general election. I was twenty-five. I was still in city council. I got reelected in 1973. In 1974, I came back to run for Congress, this time as an independent, and finished third in a close three-way race. I got elected to Congress on my fifth try in 1996. I won against both political parties.
My involvement in government has always been kind of a calling. In 1975, I ran for a citywide elected office in Cleveland, as clerk of courts. I won that election. In 1977, I ran for mayor on a platform to save the electric system from takeover.
The campaign to save Muny Light started in earnest in 1976. I carried it into the mayoral election of '77, and my first act in office was to cancel the sale. In 1978, Cleveland became the only city to go into default in the nation's modern history, solely because the banks refused to renew the city's credit when I refused to sell the electric system to a private utility. Of course, I was blamed for it. All the media were involved in promoting the sale of the electric system, principally because they were getting advertising revenue from the private electric company. All the media and both political parties favored the sale, and the entire business community — banks, utilities, real estate interests — and a majority of the city council. All I had to do was sign my name on the dotted line. I was assured of fifty million dollars of extended credit for whatever projects I wanted in the city of Cleveland. But I really saw that as a defining moment for me as to whether or not the values of community participation meant anything at all. Was I going to stand on the side of a history of Cleveland being a city which had home rule, which had public control of electricity, or was I going to just do the convenient thing, and my political career would have been ensured?
I lost the next election. [Slight chuckle] The world media were there. This was an international story. Here's this kid, this young boy who became mayor and in short order brought this great city to ruin. It became a farce. Except it wasn't very funny. However, I want to point out as a footnote, I ran the city for those two years, cutting city spending by ten percent, and paid off the debt that was left to me by the former administration — without borrowing any money at all, because I was denied access to any borrowing. But the city went into default on December fifteenth. I then took the issue to the people of Cleveland and asked them to vote to maintain the municipal electric system.
The principal television station, where the private utility sponsored the news, took a poll six weeks from the election stating that ninety-five percent of the people wanted to sell the electric system. In February, we won two to one. We raised the money to go on television. I had the help of Ralph Nader, who came in to campaign with me. We ran a grassroots campaign, which took the issue right to the people. We had a tremendous turnout for this referendum and won.
People thought that winning the referendum was tantamount to reelection for me. I knew better. The incumbent lieutenant governor, George Voinovich, ran against me. We were outspent about eight to one. On the eve of the election, there was a horrible tragedy for George Voinovich's family and for our community. His youngest daughter was struck and killed by a motor vehicle. There are some things in life that eclipse politics. The election was essentially over. I folded up the campaign. By the time the election came in November, it was a formality, and George Voinovich won by about ten points.
I was shattered. That was a low moment. I had gone to Case Western Reserve when I was a councilman. I got a bachelor's and a master's degree simultaneously from Case. But I couldn't get a job in Cleveland. Opportunities were offered, and suddenly they evaporated like drops of rain on a hot summer sidewalk. It was tantamount to being blacklisted. So I traveled the country speaking. I did some writing. I scrambled for years to try to put something together. I had some rough times. I went out to the New Mexico desert on some sort of personal odyssey in the early 1980s. I tried to run again in 1982, for secretary of state of Ohio. I lost the primary election. I never thought of giving up, but I had no idea whether any of the efforts I made to get back would ever meet with success. I just felt this calling not to quit. It was shocking to me that you could actually do the right thing and still lose.
I had an ill-fated attempt to run for governor in 1986. I dropped out of that race. It was the only race in my life I couldn't finish. In 1988, I tried again for Congress, and I lost. In 1992, I tried again, and lost that race too. People suggested I should just give it up because, politically, no one was ever going to take me seriously again. Despite that, I had this sense, this feeling: keep on, persevere, don't quit. That's really what brought me back in 1994 to make one more try. Before I got there, here's what happened. In 1993, I got a phone call from a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter. It turns out that Cleveland, in 1993, decided to embark on the largest expansion of its municipal electric system in its history, the largest expansion of any municipal electric system in the country at the time. When that was announced, there suddenly was a discussion: "Wait a minute, we wouldn't have an electric system if in 1978 the mayor had sold." It was almost like magic. Suddenly, there was a discussion about Dennis being right. Fourteen years I was out of office, and people start to talk about that decision back in 1978, that it was the right decision. [Sighs] So the Plain Dealer wrote the story, and I decided to give it one more try.
This time I ran for state senate. The Republicans had a very big year in 1994 in Ohio. Only one Democrat who ran for state office won, and that was me. I won on a slogan, symbolized by the signs I had: my name, Kucinich, behind a lightbulb with rays coming out. Underneath my name it said: Because he was right. And I won. I was returned to office with the help of the sudden awareness in the community of the importance of the decision that I made in 1978.
The city council came out with a resolution thanking me for saving the electric system and also recommending that they name the light system after me. In 1996, I ran for Congress again, fifth try. And the slogan in that campaign was "Light Up Congress." [Laughs] I was one of a few Democrats that year who defeated a Republican incumbent in a national election. I was elected with forty-nine percent of the vote, reelected in '98 with sixty-seven percent of the vote, and reelected in the year 2000 with seventy-five percent of the vote.
Next year will be the twenty-fifth anniversary of saving Muny Light. I had a sense of a connection to my constituency and a sense of purpose in my life. I was separated from that for a long time. That was very painful. But it was that calling that kept me moving, trying to re-create possibilities from nothing.
I have a faith in the nation. The optimism I have is optimism for a nation, despite all that has happened. I learned that the journey I had isn't so different from the journeys millions of people have in their lives every day, in terms of having some success and devastating losses. People go through that all the time. I've been able to include the experience of many within my experience, and that's given me a chance to understand people individually, but people in masses, too, and understand the nation.
Right now we're at a crucial moment where long-held aspirations for freedom and justice are under attack because of fear. Those freedoms enunciated in our Bill of Rights end up being political fodder in a terror-filled environment. So I have great concerns about what we need to do to stand for freedom of speech, for right of association, for the rights of defendants, for the rights of people to be free in their homes from illegal searches, concerns about a government which makes wholesale spying on its people a preferred way of control.
I don't believe we should give up any freedoms for a moment because we've been attacked by terrorists or anyone else. This is the time when we're challenged to insist even more strongly on the basic freedoms that we have, because it is through those freedoms that we're vindicated. If we lose those freedoms, we're not America anymore.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hope Dies Last"
Copyright © 2003 Studs Terkel.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Father Robert Oldershaw and Dr. John Oldershaw,
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,
Representative Dennis Kucinich,
Representative Dan Burton,
The New Deal: The Old War,
Adolph Kiefer (with interjections by his wife, Joyce),
Admiral Gene LaRoque,
Brigadier General Paul Tibbets,
Voices of the '60s,
John Kenneth Galbraith,
Bread and Roses,
Lift Every Voice,
Elaine Jones (with postscript by Theodore Shaw),
The Reverend Will D. Campbell,
Dr. David Buchanen,
Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,
Alderwoman Helen Shiller,
A Priest and Two Ex-Seminarians,
The Discovery of Power,
Frances Moore Lappé,
"Maria" and "Pedro" (interpreted by Father Brendan Curran),
A Caveat: Sam Ozaki,
Liliana Lineares (interpreted by Minsu Longiaru),
Epilogue: The Pilgrim,