Harold Jackson: Back to the '50s?

Posted: April 22, 2012

Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., I never thought I would do what I did last week, which is stay at the Tutwiler Hotel while I was in town for a retirement party.

Back then it wasn’t so much that the Tutwiler was segregated, which it was when I was a child in the 1950s and ’60s, as it was that any hotel would be too costly for my family. Then, too, we didn’t own a car or take vacations, so who needed a hotel?

The Tutwiler was built in 1914 as a luxury hotel that could entice the American Iron and Steel Institute to hold its convention in Birmingham, which owed its very existence to the steel companies attracted to the region after the Civil War by its abundance of coal and iron ore.

Birmingham didn’t exist before the Civil War, a fact that surprises people who assume its infamy as a bastion of segregation meant it was among the antebellum towns within the Confederate states.

The Tutwiler became the finest hotel in what was called the “Magic City” because of Birmingham’s rapid growth. Charles Lindbergh used the Tutwiler for a news conference and Tallulah Bankhead had her wedding reception there.

The hotel lost its luster amid the civil rights era, and the original building was imploded in 1974 to make room for a bank. But the new Tutwiler — part of the Hampton Suites chain — is actually older than the original, a 99-year-old former apartment building that was converted in 1986 and received a $9.2 million makeover in 2007.

Original building or not, it was the Tutwiler to me — and just being in it for a couple of nights brought back memories of a time relegated to history. Or is it? I ask the question because there seems to be so much effort in 2012 to return the country to what it was like 50 years ago.

It’s not just the TV shows — the short-lived Pan Am and The Playboy Club, as well as Emmy-winner Mad Men and newcomer Magic City (Miami, not Birmingham) — there are other signs that more than a few people want to turn the clock back to a time when white men were unchallenged in their supremacy.

Epitomizing these take-charge guys who can solve any problem given enough cigarettes, highballs, and promiscuous women to keep them stimulated is the Mad Men character Don Draper, an advertising executive whose life story has more twists than a pretzel.

There’s no real comparison between Draper and devout Mormon, faithful husband, cool-challenged Mitt Romney, but Democrats awkwardly trying to link the two to win women and minority support for President Obama do make a valid point about what America has been and what it needs to be now.

Even powerful Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has described Romney as “kind of a throwback to the ’50s.” But people craving a return to those halcyon days of Ike on the golf course, a Chevy in the driveway, and June Cleaver vacuuming in pearls forget that those days included another side of America — the side with segregation and back-alley abortions.

Black and brown voters aren’t too thrilled about taking a trip in Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine to a time when skin color was a much greater impediment to success in life. Neither do women want to return to a time when your hemline could be the difference in whether the boss even noticed you existed.

Unless Romney and the Republican Party can do a better job of convincing minorities and women that they aren’t steeped in the past, they will have a hard time beating Obama, even with the weak economy. Blacks and Hispanics were hit hardest by the recession and have the worst unemployment rates, but they still support Obama.

In fact, the minority vote is expected to be so strong for Obama in November that to win reelection he may need even less than the 43 percent of the white vote that he got in 2008.

The Republican Party is strong among a demographic, too — white men, who support the GOP by a 21 percent margin over the Democrats, according to a Pew Research Center survey. But even given the popularity of the fictional Don Draper, they may not get to call the shots this time.

And if the Republicans do beat Obama, it’s still time for them to realize that they must broaden their appeal for continued success. If they don’t, their party will be headed for, as Tallulah Bankhead put it, “oblivion, by way of obscurity.”


E-mail editorial page editor Harold Jackson at hjackson@phillynews.com.

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