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Falling Down: Lessons Learned From the Story of Whitemarsh Hall

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Just imagine for a moment:  Imagine driving down a near-empty cobblestone road surrounded by little else than vast, rolling fields and the occasional farmhouse. Up ahead you see what looks like an intersection, but after a few moments it reveals itself to be a long, winding driveway. Curious, you choose to deviate from the beaten path and explore this odd stretch of pavement. You follow it through a series of low hills and dense forests until something massive stands before you. Now, the driveway is no longer winding, but instead taking a semicircular direction. To the left of you is a marble-lined reflecting pool whose splendor rivals that of the Washington Monument’s, and to the right a series of pavilions and elevated walkways constructed in the neo-Georgian style. When you reach the point where the driveway bends, you stop your car and exit it. Now at its footstep, you examine that massive structure which you had seen from afar, awed by its beauty and majesty. Is it a government institution? Possibly, though you doubt it as it appears to be far too well kept for the public sector’s tastes. Is it a museum? It may very well be as it is about as large as the Metropolitan in Manhattan, but then where are all the people? Could it be — no, come on — someone’s residence?  Bingo.

You are at Whitemarsh Hall in suburban Philadelphia, or to be exact, Wyndmoor, a small town in Montgomery County, circa 1921. The Hall, built by banking kingpin Edward G. Stotesbury as a gift to his wife, was designed to be a testament of what hard work, free enterprise, and an unyielding adherence to the American Dream could result in. His creation was, at the time, the manifestation of all that the United States had the potential to be; an infinitely more refined version of what Ronald Reagan would refer to as a shining city on a hill more than half a century later. During Stotesbury’s age, he was fortunate enough to have a strong political organization, the Republican Party, fully supporting his interests and, by that virtue, capitalism itself. He never would have to worry about talk radio demagogues, religious fanatics, or far-right lunatics subverting the limited government agenda which he so championed.

Sadly, this is not the case today.

As with the rest of the country, Whitemarsh Hall entered a state of decline when the Great Depression hit. Unlike virtually all of his colleagues, however, Stotesbury did not lose all, or even most, of his money on that fateful day in late 1929 now commonly referred to as Black Tuesday. No, he remained solvent right up until the day he died as a result of his personal fiscal conservatism, despite being negatively impacted by Franklin Roosevelt’s Raw –er, New Deal programs. After his passing, his widow vacated Whitemarsh and it became abandoned after being owned by a mining company for a few years. In a way, Stotesbury’s catalyst for capitalism, the GOP, experienced a similar fate, with its grand ambitions of open markets and minds slowly being eroded to make way for the populist sentiments of those good ole Dixiecrats and “Real Americans” whose votes the party’s hierarchy had high hopes of wooing.

By the time the the early eighties rolled around, Whitemarsh Hall had been reduced to little more than a jumble of vines and overgrown weeds with some really nice tiles and columns underneath it all somewhere. It was summarily demolished in order to create space for a prospective housing development. Meanwhile, its visionary’s political counterpart was suffering along with it. The GOP’s heyday of fiscal conservatism was, for the most part, lost amidst a freakshow of used Jesus salesmen whose tactics and beliefs would make even Elmer Gantry cringe, and a cadre of George Wallace-style conservatives whose hate for those who were not just like them knew no bounds. Still, despite these misfortunes, a glimmer of hope remained at the time for both Whitemarsh and the GOP. After all, with destruction comes opportunity; it would have been possible to build something even grander than the Hall and do some massive course corrections for the Party.

As you can guess, opportunity’s knocks went unanswered.

A few years before the close of the twentieth century, Whitemarsh’s grandeur was forever written into the history books with the construction of several rows of what are, to be frank, quite possibly the most unappealing townhomes imaginable on the spot where it had once stood so proudly. This was not the case for the GOP, however, as it experienced a semi-revival of its traditional values during the electoral revolution of 1994. Unfortunately, this revival lost steam relatively quickly, and by 2006, many of the party’s most elder statesman were shilling amnesty for illegal aliens. All hope was not lost, though, as a stunning new movement, which billed itself as the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party, took hold in early 2009 . Its goals were not only agreeable, but in many instances honorable as they were designed to champion fiscal conservatism only, leaving behind the precarious social issues whose divisiveness nearly dragged the GOP into the permanent past tense, along with Whitemarsh. Things went very well for roughly one year until the usual suspects decided to enter the fray and turn the TEA Party into something it was never intended to be: the Second Coming of the late Jerry Falwell’s insidious Moral Majority. Today, the current incarnation of the TEA Party stands to cost the GOP the critical gains it needs to retake both houses of Congress this November. It just might wind up being the best ally which the American left could possibly have dreamt of.

One could easily compare TEA 2.0 to those unattractive townhomes which sealed Whitemarsh’s fate, and the GOP to the Hall itself. Perhaps the lone difference between the new TEA Party movement and those townhomes is that the latter have already been built, while only the seeds have been sown for the former’s establishment in partisan politics. As I have been saying for the last several months, it is absolutely crucial for the GOP to distance itself from the TEA Party before the midterm elections if it wishes to score a serious comeback in them.

As beautiful and magnificent as Whitemarsh Hall was, the fact that it did indeed fall cannot be ignored. It is long past time for America’s center-right politicos to wake up to the realization that the same can easily happen to the GOP, and if it does, then America’s days as a global economic superpower will be nothing more than a distant, but pleasant, memory.

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About Joseph F. Cotto