Years ago, I heard the author Gore Vidal talking about Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was as hated in his own time by some people as President Obama is today. Vidal, who had grown up in the moneyed world of Washington society, was baffled by the right-wing reaction.
"After all, he saved capitalism," he said. "I'm not necessarily sure that was such a good thing, but he saved it, all right."
President Obama was scheduled to visit several Chrysler and General Motors auto factories in Detroit today. Now, nobody is saying that this president saved capitalism. But he did save the auto industry, at least for now, and with it the state of Michigan.
Here's a funny thing about automotive industry bailouts that you may not have realized. They have a history of working. A lot of people, including me, were heavily skeptical when the government extended loan guarantees to Chrysler back in 1979.
Not only did they enable the automaker to survive and eventually again thrive, but the loans were all paid off ahead of time.
Chrysler's later troubles and the ill-advised sale to Daimler were not the government's fault. The economy isn't all that great today, but we should take a moment and think about how bad things looked less than two years ago. It seemed very possible, even likely, that both Chrysler and GM would go out of business.
Ford looked pretty shaky as well. Economists at the Center for Automotive Research told me at the time that if General Motors and Chrysler went out of business, the ripple effect could mean the rapid loss of millions of jobs. That consequences would have been something that looked a lot like the Great Depression.
But that didn't happen, first because of billions in loans the government extended to both automakers -- a process even former President George W. Bush thought necessary. After that, the government helped GM and Chrysler through bankruptcy proceedings cushioned to help them achieve a soft landing.
Today, Chrysler and GM are not only still alive, but making money in what is anything but a strong market. GM has even paid back almost seven billion, ahead of schedule.
Tom Walsh, an auto industry columnist, notes in today's Detroit Free Press that the strings attached to the bailout helped the automakers reshape themselves into leaner and meaner machines.
There was of course a downside; many people still lost their jobs. The unions made concessions that mean that any new hires will not be able to afford the middle-class lifestyle generations of auto workers managed to achieve. But the industry gained a new lease on life, and it did so because of a partnership with government that was immensely beneficial to the so-called private sector.
That ought to be as plain as a pickup truck. But on the Free Press's web site, bloggers had posted a stream of hateful comments under Walsh's column, saying the President was, among other things, a Maoist. Other than exhibiting appalling ignorance about what that means, I think this nasty and close-minded polarization is more disturbing than any boneheaded policy decisions could be.
Increasingly, we seem to be a place where people scream at each other, instead of talking to each other. If that continues, the auto crisis could end up the least of our problems.