The Cubist Republican

Feb. 7 1997 3:30 AM

The Cubist Republican

What Gertrude Stein and I share--beyond a last name.

Gertrude Stein was not my aunt, although I sometimes fantasize that she was. The notion that I am her relative and a member of her charmed circle is 100 percent crazy, but it's not 200 percent crazy. Gertrude and I share the name Stein, and we are both Jewish. And I have recently discovered another affinity. We are both Republicans.

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The idea that this revolutionary in literary style, this patron of bohemians and radicals, this most famous lesbian since Sappho was a Republican is staggering and delicious. Just imagine what Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan, and Jerry Falwell would think if they knew! Other avant-garde writers were conservatives of a type: Ezra Pound was a fascist conservative; T.S. Eliot a high-church, elitist conservative; William Faulkner an antique Southern gentleman conservative. But Gertrude Stein, whom I will call "GS" for brevity, was a mainstream, middle-America, small-government Republican. She was not a Rockefeller Republican, even though Rockefeller endowed the Museum of Modern Art, celebrating the artists she was among the first to recognize. She was more like a Coolidge Republican, even sharing her literary style with Cal. He sounded like GS when he said, "When people are out of work there is unemployment." The superficial simple-mindedness of the statement makes one think there must be some deeper meaning beneath it.

In January 1934, GS said that Republicans "are the only natural rulers" in the United States. What was special about the United States was that its individuals were free and its government was small, something Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt did not understand. "When I say Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt are not American I mean they do not feel America to be a very large country around which anybody can wander and so although a government is there it is not always anywhere near but they feel it to be a little country which they can govern, and so it is European and not American."

Theodore Roosevelt was, of course, a Republican, but GS did not consider him an authentic one. "It is not that Theodore Roosevelt destroyed the republican party that might have happened anyway." She saved her real dislike for Franklin Roosevelt, saying that Democrats were elected president only if they had a "singular seductiveness." "Roosevelt [Franklin] was honestly elected, but he is not half as seductive as his predecessors, so I don't think he will be elected a second time."

Her dislike of FDR was based partly on economic policy. "Is Franklin Roosevelt trying to make money be so that it has no existence that it ceases to be a thing that anybody could count, so that nobody can any longer believe in it or is it all electioneering," she asked. If his goal was ridding people of the belief in money so that they would no longer believe in it, GS thought it might be a good thing. But what FDR really wanted, she believed, was a lot of money at his disposal so that he could control everything.

GS gave the most extensive view of her thoughts on economics in a series of articles published in 1936 in the Saturday Evening Post, the house organ of Main Street Republicanism. Her basic theme was that governments spend too much. According to GS, the unemployed do not want to work, and if there were fewer rich people, there would be more poor people. Although FDR is not mentioned by name in her pieces, it's evident that he is the main culprit.

The first article, "Money," starts with this simple brass-tacks statement:

Everybody just has to make up their mind. Is money money or isn't money money. Everybody who earns it and spends it every day in order to live knows that money is money, everybody who votes it to be gathered in as taxes knows money is not money. That is what makes everybody go crazy.

GS's point is that the government officials who tax and spend do not realize what money is to the people who earn it. But because money really is money, those who tax and spend should treat it the way that the earners treat it--but they don't. There is trickery or confusion in GS's argument. Of course, money is money, but there are different kinds of money, and the different kinds need to be regarded and managed differently. Each soldier in an army division is someone's son, but we do not expect the commanding general to manage all of them the way their mothers would.

Governments may be wasteful in managing money, but the only evidence GS provides is in the story of Louis XV, who, when accused of spending too much, said, "After me, the deluge." The story was singularly inappropriate in 1936--the deluge had come after Coolidge and Hoover, and Roosevelt's spending was an effort to stem the deluge, or at least to keep some people from drowning in it.