It’s almost midnight and my seven-year-old is finally asleep. Tonight, she and I had the usual arguments about her taking a bath, about when she would go to bed; as it happens I’ve been a single dad the last several days, so we’ve argued more than usual. Two days ago was her Christmas play at school, at eight in the morning when her second-grade class sang, “All I Want for Christmas Is a Hippopotamus,” and it wasn’t until I was back in the car afterward that I heard on the radio about Sandy Hook. By the time I got to lunch there was nothing else on the news. It would be an overstatement to suggest that all of the restaurant had come to a stop, but certainly it arrested the attention of many, some of the waiters stopping to watch the TV over the bar when the president came on. From where I sat, I could see the TV but not hear it; I saw the president brush something from one eye as though there was something in it, and only when I saw him brush the other eye did I know for sure that this wasn’t something I had seen him do before.
For a young Southern Californian coming of age in the early ’60s, the right with its emphasis on individual freedom was enormously appealing. What better way to rebel against liberal smugness? Then, the right betrayed itself.
Courtesy of the Special Collections at Wofford College
Barry Goldwater was my first political hero. The most antiauthoritarian figure in mainstream American politics, who said what he thought without giving a damn, he looked and sounded as Western as Arizona, the state he represented in the Senate. Goldwater and John Kennedy hatched plans in the White House—for what they assumed would be their upcoming presidential campaign against each other in 1964—to travel the country in the Arizonan’s small plane that he flew himself, stopping off at airports in the middle of nowhere to debate one issue or another before taking off again. This two-fisted, free-flying persona made Goldwater the kind of politician that film director Howard Hawks might have come up with; by comparison, government couldn’t help appearing soullessly oppressive. Great Society liberalism had become the norm by the mid-1960s, and this reinforced Goldwater’s iconoclasm, striking a politically attuned, insistently nonconformist teenager as utopian, in the same way that Kennedy embodied idealism for so many others of my generation.
For a while now I’ve had a play in my head called “Three Presidents” that, not being a playwright, I haven’t had the wherewithal to think through. The third and sixteenth presidents of the United States meet in front of the White House and introduce themselves. Number 16 knows all about Number 3, of course, while Number 3 is at once charmed and slightly disconcerted that in its selection of presidents like Number 16, the country has become so populist, so …Jeffersonian. After remarking on how the White House is rather less approachable than in their own times, the two men eventually file through security into the West Wing, and finally are escorted into the Oval Office. This in itself captivates them, since the Oval Office as we now know it is less than 80 years old.
I’ve told this story before in one venue or another, but I think that—72 hours after the election—it’s good for one last recounting before I retire it. Two and a half years ago, I was on a flight from Los Angeles to New York when the woman in the next seat picked a fight with me about the Affordable Care Act, which was on the verge of passing the Senate. She and I had gotten along well enough until then, though our interaction mostly entailed me helping her find the outlet to plug in her laptop; peering over my shoulder, however, she surmised (not incorrectly, it should be acknowledged) what my position was based on the website I was looking at, and she wanted to set me straight. “You know what the difference is between us?” she finally concluded about 15 futile minutes later. “I’m a responsible person and you’re not.” I confess I didn’t know what to say to this other than what I didn’t ask, which was whether she had children, who rather exponentially up the responsibility quotient of one’s life; I didn’t ask because I knew the answer, and I also knew that, as a woman, she was of an age when this could be a profoundly painful matter. I couldn’t bring myself to win an argument at that cost. It may also be that it was as unfair of me to assume this was someone for whom responsibility was something she took only for herself as it was of her to assume it was something I didn’t take at all.
Character is destiny, said the Greek philosopher Heraclites—a romantic, maybe, since the implication is that sooner or later the good guy wins. It’s probably a character flaw on my part, indicative of smugness, to assume this maxim will be tested tomorrow on Election Day in terms of both the two presidential candidates running and the country itself. Such an assumption implies that the good guy’s identity is evident. This may not be the first time in our lives when a national election is about nothing less than the meaning of America. More than 1968 or 1932, however, the views and values of both sides are so distinctly different that what’s unsettling isn’t each side believing the other represents the forces of darkness and that the future of the country is at stake; everybody believes these things during a heated campaign. What’s unsettling is that, for once, these things may be true. This is what makes tomorrow such a dreadful crossroads and what makes after tomorrow such an inevitably daunting path.