The Return of the Party Line

By J.F. McKenna


I once made a passing comment to my sister, Mary Ann, about the trouble we had created with the party line in our West 100th Street house.

“Remember how Ma would go nuts when she’d catch us listening to the neighbors’ calls,” I said. “She’d holler about how disrespectful it was. Then she’d put the fear of God into us with the clincher about ‘getting caught by the police, who’ll probably come to the door and arrest you’ And then we’d do it anyway.”

As we chuckled over this childhood mischief, my sharp-eared niece Mary Therese piped up with, “What’s a party line, Uncle Joe?”

Ever the instructive godfather, I cranked out my best explanation. “Long before cell phones and the Internet and all that other good high-tech stuff, a lot of folks had only land lines, some of which had to be shared with neighbors,” I said. “Sometimes you’d pick up the phone—the only one in the house, by the way—and you’d find Mrs. McQueen or someone else describing her latest attack of rheumatism or passing along the latest sale dope from the A&P. You were to hang up the phone on the double. That was the rule. But the temptation to play spy was incredible. Of course, the house would fall on your mom and me if Grandma caught us.”

I believe my niece’s response to that brilliant historical summary was something to the effect of “Wow, that’s weird!”

Far weirder is that the party line is back. This time, though, law enforcement is not going to do anything to the eavesdropper. Except justify the practice.

Quizzed by the press regarding the federal government’s wholesale and clandestine collection of citizens’ phone data and e-mails, President Obama said June 7 that national security sometimes involves “modest encroachments.” To those constitutional fussbudgets who yammer about “unwarranted search and seizure,” POTUS and other national leaders talk about tradeoffs being necessary in a world in which jihadists and other international jag-offs threaten us folks who fashioned the Bill of Rights.

To be honest, I wish I had thought of the “modest encroachments of security” defense when my mother nailed me for upsetting the old gal who lived on West 101st, an unwitting member of our telephonic family in 1960. It probably wouldn’t have saved me, anyway. Pauline McKenna was no constitutional scholar, but she had an intuitive grasp of how to promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty.

Time will tell how the feds succeed with their stretchy constitutional approach. Meanwhile, their IT deputies, legally beholden to the government under current Patriot Act provisions, are faced with making lemonade out of the marketing lemon of turning customer data over to Washington. Don’t be surprise to catch upcoming TV commercials that proclaim “counterterrorism analysts prefer the data quality of Verizon over AT&T, 2 to 1” You might also keep an eye out for Bureauchat—an improved spell-check tool to make your e-mails more appealing to readers in government cubicles.

As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “Everyone should just calm down and understand that this isn’t anything that’s brand new.”  I checked and Harry is right: the citizenry ultimately determines what’s integral to keeping a more perfect Union, including a government-run party line. Way back in 1840—long before the first phone call—the iconic Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story said so.

America’s constitutional structure, Justice Story wrote, “has been reared for immortality, if the work of man may aspire to such a title. It may, nevertheless, perish in an hour, by the folly, or corruption, or negligence of its only keepers, THE PEOPLE. Republics are created by the virtue, public spirit, and intelligence of the citizens. They fall, when the wise are banished from public councils, because they dare to be honest, and the profligate are rewarded, because they flatter the people, in order to betray them.”

Rather good and timeless stuff—those observations. Maybe I’ll mention them to my sister when I phone on her birthday, July 4.

Then again, maybe I’ll just mail a card.


CBR contributor J.F. McKenna is a business journalist, communications consultant and former editor at Industry Week, Tooling & Production, and Northern Ohio Live magazines. Reach him at or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.



  1. Daniel Beck says:

    Great piece. I remember the party line and how Mrs Party would yak and yak about her daughter, a quite tempting young lady according to my older brother. But she was always yakking when I needed to call a friend about homework or some such.
    Thanks for that memory I appreciated the time spent in that one.

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