Commentary
10:46 am
Thu March 22, 2012

Arthur Vandenberg: Remembering a Hero

Yesterday, I was listening to Rick Santorum attack Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney for supposedly being willing to take more moderate positions in the general election campaign.

Well, there’s something to be said against being a flip-flopper, changing with every new opinion poll. But there is also something more to be said for recognizing reality.

Today would have been the birthday of a man who did exactly that, who was one of the greatest Republicans in Michigan history, a man who himself might have been president. His name was Arthur Vandenberg. He was born and died in Grand Rapids, and served for more than twenty years in the U.S. Senate.

He was conservative to the core, and proud of it. He was a bitter opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and voted against just about every piece of domestic liberal legislation.

He also entered politics as a strong isolationist, committed to keeping this nation clear of any foreign entanglements. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made Vandenberg admit something that might get him thrown out of the GOP today.

He admitted he’d been wrong. And he devoted the rest of his life working with first Roosevelt, then Harry Truman, to craft a truly bipartisan foreign policy -- and to convert the Republican Party from isolationism to internationalism.

In a famous speech, Vandenberg said, “I want the Republican Party to be liberal enough to march with the times, to dare answers to new problems, and to use the power and strength and initiative of government to help citizens to help themselves when they confront problems beyond their own resources and their own control.”

There were those who accused him of betraying the party’s basic principles. Vandenberg’s response was simply, “I want the oak to stand, but I want the branches to grow.”

I’ve know a little about Vandenberg for a long time. But I recently learned a lot more about him, thanks to a superb documentary, “America’s Senator,” that’s been running from time to time on Michigan Public Television stations for the last three months. Mike Grass, who runs a Grand Rapids firm called Strategic Communications, was the writer and producer, and the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State was also involved in the film.

But the real motivator behind it was Hank Meijer, the CEO of the company who runs the Meijer Supercenter stores. Hank was the movie’s executive producer, and has been working for years on a soon-to-be completed definitive biography of Vandenberg.

“America’s Senator” is likely to be shown nationally soon, Mike Grass tells me, and the Hauenstein Center can help make copies available before then. I think it’s a movie everyone should see.

Vandenberg, Hank Meijer said, helped invent bipartisanship. He died of cancer, sixty-one years ago this spring. Sadly, he didn’t live to see the triumphant success of his policies. The next year, an internationalist GOP, which had been long out of power, recaptured the White House, which it has held for most of the time since.

Forty years after Vandenberg was buried, his policies helped lead directly to our victory in the Cold War. Somehow I’d feel better if all the candidates in both parties could see this film.