The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond Summary

Samuel G. Freedman


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond, Samuel G. Freedman attempts to understand and explain America’s turn toward the political right in the 1980’s and 1990’s by focusing on the history of three particular families, from their immigrant roots to their struggle to achieve middle-class status. Although each has its own fascinating history, these families have much in common. With Irish, Polish, and Italian roots, all arrived in this country around the turn of the century, are Catholic, working-class individuals, and were involved in Democratic politics from 1932 to 1968, remaining loyal to the party during the New Deal, World War II, and the postwar boom years. By the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, the third generation changed this pattern as a backlash against the antiwar movement, race riots, black power, welfare, affirmative action, and busing formed, and these children of the Democratic working class—Frank Trotta, Jr., Tim Carey, and Leslie Maeby—became Republican Party activists.

Frank Trotta, Jr.’s great-grandfather, Martin Burigo, left Italy for America in 1890, and within ten years owned his own construction company and a home in the suburb of New Rochelle, New York. His luck changed, however, when his wife fell ill, his youngest son drowned, his business failed, and he lost his home. After Martin hanged himself in 1910, his wife distributed the older children among various relatives in America and returned to Italy to die.

One of these children, Silvio Burigo, left school at the age of fifteen to apprentice as a plumber. His life soon became defined by his membership in the plumbers’ union; he prided himself on not missing a union meeting or dues payment and never accepted a nonunion job, even while his family went hungry. His loyalty to the union was accompanied by an unquestioning allegiance to the Democratic Party—an allegiance he passed on to his daughter, Lorraine.

Lorraine found a job as a telephone operator right out of high school and worked for the telephone company for thirty-eight years. She married Frank Trotta, also a Democrat, who worked as a janitor at the Robert R. Hartley public housing project until his retirement at age seventy. Frank had an intimate view of the gradual deterioration of the once immaculate and hopeful housing project, as the working-poor tenants gave way to welfare recipients who not only took less pride in their surroundings but also considered the public housing to be a permanent residence rather than a step on the way to self-sufficiency. Although he never gave up his membership in the Democratic Party, Frank Trotta became disheartened by the fact that he and his family scrimped and sacrificed their entire lives to purchase a house much more modest than public housing, and that his own children often needed the free lunches thrown away by the project residents.

Frank Trotta, Jr., was politically active in high school, but his working-class background, rather than drawing him to the Democratic Party of his parents, led him to join the Teen Age Republicans and support Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. Young Frank campaigned for local Republican politicians even in high school, and when he attended the State University of New York at Albany, he found himself politically out of step with the majority of his classmates. Gravitating toward his conservative classmates, he met Tim Carey and Leslie Maeby for the first time. Trotta graduated from law school, entered a large Manhattan law firm, and remained active in the world of Republican politics, working alongside Carey and Maeby on Lewis Lehrman’s campaign for governor of New York in 1982.

Trotta’s political colleague, Leslie Maeby, also had a great-grandfather who arrived in the United States at the turn of the century. Aleksander Obrycki was forced to leave Poland for political reasons, settled in Baltimore, Maryland, and became a U.S. citizen in 1907. Obrycki worked for a Democratic ward boss, escorting new immigrants to the polling place on election day. He opened a bar and allowed the local numbers boss to run an operation there, initiating Obrycki’s son Joe into the business at age fifteen by using him as a numbers runner. Joe thrived in the illegal gambling business, even during the Depression, and maintained close ties to the corrupt...

(The entire section is 1776 words.)