Canvassing Las Vegas, a Scary Moment Just Before Election Day

Sign on the gate 2 doors from the home of our Las Vegas trouble-maker.

“Get out of my neighborhood. I have guns! If you two don’t leave right now I’m gonna go get them.”

It was the Saturday before election day and we were canvassing in Las Vegas in a sprawling cookie-cutter development – not a fancy one – with “front yards” of sand, not grass.  Worn Halloween figures and flags hung on the doors; fake spider webs stuck stubbornly to doorways and bushes.  My son Dan and I had just arrived and this was our first block.  It was the weekend before his birthday but both of us were beyond anxious about the election and hoped that going door-to-door, even more than making calls, might ease our souls a bit; at least we were doing something.

A moment earlier we’d been joking with this same 30-something guy over the neighborhood Halloween decorations. He asked what we were doing walking along his block and Dan said “Just talking to people.” “What about,” he asked. “What are you talking to people about?” “Hillary Clinton” I said, smiling at him – (that almost always works.)

Not this time. As we moved beyond him and on up the street, he was still yelling. “Get out!  Get out!”  Shaken, we decided to move up a block and try the next house on our tally sheet but he and his friend were making their way toward us, his friend telling him to “do something about it” if  he was going to yell anyway.  We fled.

I’ve seen angry crowds before, including demonstrators and police in Chicago in 1968.  I’d seen reports of scary Trump rally crowds too.  But this single person, focused on us with such rage, was a different kind of scary.  My heart was pounding as if I’d had way too much coffee.  As that response ebbed, I just got sad.  And then sadder.  “This isn’t how our country is supposed to be.” I kept saying to Dan.  He, wisely, was more concerned about danger than he was with analyzing the social meaning of all this.  He has a two-year-old son and was unsettled more for him, and for his wife; he needed to stay safe for them.

That was wise, but for me, the cruelty and rage of these two men, who’d turned on a dime from “We all DO love our Halloween here” to “Get the fuck out of my neighborhood” was painful on so many levels.

They weren’t the only ones.  At least two more times, the response to our question: “Have you voted yet?” was “I don’t do Democrats.  Go away,” declared with icy affect and stone cold eyes.

Saturday afternoon, as we waited at headquarters for a new neighborhood assignment, we were visited by Gabby Giffords, and her husband Mark Kelly, as well as Lucy McBath, one of the Mothers of the Movement, a sad sisterhood of moms whose children, her son Jordan Davis among them, had been killed by police officers.  The combination of the realities faced by these people and their efforts to reenforce the critical nature of every vote we could pull out of our assigned areas was a reminder of all that is at stake in our country.

Enthusiastic volunteers wait for Gabby Gifford and husband Mark Kelly to address to the crowd.

Lucy McBath, one of the Mothers of the Movement. Her son was Jordan Davis

Here’s the thing though:

This anger didn’t arise on its own. It’s been enabled, and not just by Mr. Trump and his allies and followers. Not all the angry people we met lived in lesser circumstances, with less education and income, than the norm but they do live differently from the people who govern them – and the people who cover them.

Listen to Columnist Sarah Smarsh in The Guardian

sarah-smarsh-sized*  Earlier this year, primary exit polls revealed that Trump voters were, in fact, more affluent than most Americans, with a median household income of $72,000higher than that of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporterss.

*  Forty-four percent of them had college degrees, well above the national average of 33% among whites or 29% overall. . . .
These facts haven’t stopped pundits and journalists from pushing story after story about the white working class’s giddy embrace of a bloviating demagogue. . . .
*  The faces journalists do train the cameras on – hateful ones screaming sexist vitriol next to Confederate flags – must receive coverage but do not speak for the communities I know well.
*  One-dimensional stereotypes fester where journalism fails to tread. The last time I saw my native class receive substantial focus, before now, was over 20 years ago – not in the news but on the television show Roseanne, the fictional storylines of which remain more accurate than the musings of comfortable commentators in New York studios.

* In lieu of such coverage, media makers cast the white working class as a monolith and imply an old, treacherous story convenient to capitalism: that the poor are dangerous idiots.

Sure political passions on both sides are self-defined far differently than they’re defined from the outside. But if those who cover non-elites never go near them except to write about them; if they’re described more through sociology than personal stories, oddities instead of neighbors, the divisions we’ve experienced in this election will not ease.

We don’t go to the same schools, we don’t live in the same neighborhoods, we don’t share military/non-military histories and we don’t agree on politics. We also don’t have access to simple exchanges: in the carpool line, as room parents or scout leaders, at the supermarket or the gas station, at the playground or even at neighborhood Halloween events.

I grew up in a steel town on the Monongahela River.  I was the lawyer’s daughter; when we graduated I went to an Ivy League college that almost no one in my community had even heard of.  Several of the kids from my high school who went to college did so by joining the Army.  Because of Viet Nam, many of them never made it home to enroll.

We all went to the same dances and football games though, and parties in each other’s homes.  I know – know – that every day that I spent as a journalist I did a better job because I’d grown up among so many different kinds of kids, even though it was always clear my future was going to be different from many of theirs.

We need to be able to depend on journalists to translate a bit for us and right now that doesn’t happen enough. Of course no American should threaten another with a gun.  Of course not.  But we also need to be able to expect from those who deliver information to us that they’ve gone beyond their own experiences to learn how others live- and to share that understanding with the rest of us.

Death in Orlando and What Else We Could Lose

In the room backs 1 cropped
Pre-Summit “Builders’ Day” where leaders of all races and generations share findings and innovations

Tattoos, weird clothes, tee shirts with funny pictures on them, pink hair, long hair, scruffy hair, sticker-saturated computers — and brilliance, geek humor, and deep respect for one another over generation,  gender, gender identification, religion and race: that was what I saw last week at the Internet Archive Decentralized Web Summit* — called partly to discuss the technology and ethical questions behind an increasingly centralized Web.

I kept thinking all weekend about this diverse crew of genius conference attendees as the horror of the Orlando shootings unfolded.  With it will come the inevitable racial and religious generalizations and this international crew of brainiacs included probably 20%  who, because of name or skin color or accent face a higher likelihood of reflexive suspicion,  potential online monitoring, extra security checks at airports, and frightened glances in elevators, Starbuck’s and movie lines.

Over the next weeks and months, we must decide how our country should respond to what is clearly an increasing threat, especially since mainstream security experts have implied a need for more surveillance, not only in person and through interviews but also online.

I have no answers and am barely fluent in the technologies powering these surveillance tools so there’s very little I can add either to this question or the sad jeopardy into which it may place so many of my new conference friends.  For me though, it’s another  – and very important – ripple in the pool of our outrage.

*New Connections
We are bringing together a diverse group of Web architects, activists, engineers, archivists, scholars, journalists, and other stakeholders to explore the technology required to build a Decentralized Web and its impact.

Call to action
The current Web is not private or censorship-free. It lacks a memory, a way to preserve our culture’s digital record through time. The Decentralized Web aims to make the Web open, secure and free of censorship by distributing data, processing, and hosting across millions of computers around the world, with no centralized control.


Big Birthday Memory #22 : Flowers in Their Hair

haight bw lgNOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day  until the end of May. Today – from June 11, 2007.

This morning the New York Times told me that the San Francisco Summer of Love was 40 (forty!!!) years ago. No, I wasn’t there. I was still in college, and that summer I was working a the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh, Pa, taking pictures in various buildings and helping with community organizing.

It was the days of VISTA and there were volunteers all over town, working with residents to learn how to budget, how to prepare nutritious food, child development and work skills. It was moving, exciting work – a job I’d gotten for myself after the director initially told me that “no nice girl from Smith belongs in the projects.”  He was from the original public housing establishment and a great teacher, once I convinced him I wasn’t some Muffie prepazoid.

But the Summer of Love… my boyfriend was out there – his family lived in Berkeley – and it all looked so romantic.  I was far too committed to what I was doing – and too much of a coward to ever tell my parents I was going.  I also knew that hanging around stoned was not the way to help people who couldn’t help themselves – and that was what I most wanted to do.  Even so, it was tough thinking that all the action was “out there” and I was on the shores of the Monongahela River in Head Starts and food banks.

steelmillnight2 lg
Between my house and “downtown” there was a bridge that went through the famous Homestead neighborhood where the Pinkertons beat up the steel strikers so brutally.  Crossing between a smoking mill with a red aura generated by molten steel and the Mesta Machinery plant, it rattled and clanked with age and instability.  Ever since we were little we had called it the “rickety bridge.”  I loved it.

One day that summer, somehow emblematic to me of the whole three months, I was driving along and, just as I began to cross the bridge, Scott McKenzie’s “If You’re Goin’ to San Francisco” came on the radio.  At first I smiled, then – suddenly – without warning, I began to cry.  I ended up sobbing, almost unable to drive.  I still don’t know why.  The song was moving, of course, and very seductive, but now as I recall that day I think I was also crying for the side of me I couldn’t allow to rule.  I loved the ideals of the counterculture, adored the music and light shows and communes and home-made bread — but either my fear of the risk or my commitment to politics or both kept me home.

It was probably better.  I later left college to work in the anti-war campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy – a risk more suited to my nature and dreams.  Even so – remembering that day, which I do, with particular intensity – I’m still sad – for what I may have missed, for what the movement disintegrated into, for those shiny dreams that even then seemed a bit naive.  You know that old Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that ends: It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.  True then – and sometimes, just as true now.

Big Birthday Memory #20: Is 2016 the New 1968? Bernie Sanders, The Donald and Eugene McCarthy

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from September 22, 2015.

I'm on the right - leafleting outside a textile mill in New Hampshire, February 1968
I’m on the right – leafleting outside a textile mill in New Hampshire, February 1968

They called us a lot of things.  “The Children’s Crusade” (an awful lot of us were college kids,)” “revolutionaries,” “dangerous  idealists,” sometimes even “traitors.”Dump LBJ1We were the ones who responded to Allard Lowenstein’s call to”Dump Johnson” by drafting an anti-war candidate,  because, as he told us, “you can’t beat somebody with nobody.” We signed on to help to bring down President Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam War with the only person willing to run, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy.  And yeah, that’s me with that same Senator Eugene McCarthy. In 1968, in the middle of the night, in New Hampshire, when we kind of won* the New Hampshire primary.

Now observers of the movements behind both Senator Bernie Sanders and the Donald Trump/Ben Carson Republicans, have compared those campaigns to our efforts, and to some extent, to the rest of the 1960’s anti-war movement.  So.  What do we think?

SANDERS Crowd, Phoenix, AZ


TRUMP crowd, Mobile AL
TRUMP crowd, Mobile AL

In 1968: We were desperate and felt we were losing our country – or at least its soul and moral place in the world.  We were doing it in someone else’s country and with cruel tools like napalm and cluster bombs.

2016: These campaigners, too, are desperate, and whether from right or left, feel they are losing their country.  Consider Sanders’ outrage and economic populism, calling out an economy he views as not only unjust but un-American; consider the huge response.

Consider the fevered reaction to Trump’s pledges to “Make America Great Again”, not only through his business acumen (and some horrifying immigration changes and racial provocation) but also through economic ideas that even Paul Krugman reluctantly acknowledges aren’t dumb.

1968: Vietnam was a life and death issue; the draft brought it home to every American, especially the young — and their parents and teachers and, gradually, much of the rest of America.

It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all?     — Phil Ochs, I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore

2016: Today, the life and death issue is the disintegration of the great American middle class that has long built and sustained this country (to say nothing of enabling a consumer economy that sustained growth for decades.) It’s a brutal blow to what Americans see the their birthright.  We all know the symptoms – underemployment, disappearing job security and benefits, and this, from a 2014 Pew report:

But after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.

1968: We had very little faith in institutions (“the Establishment,”) from the government to the police to political parties, gigantic, impersonal universities, media that covered us with cruel disdain, and of course, the military.  With limited experience, we didn’t really understand the complicated issues that faced each of these entities – and our country – and exacerbated both its problems and every tragic mistake.  And though we were right about much of what we believed, we were pretty cavalier in the belief we knew how to fix things.

Although I was immunized by my steel town history, shared with kids who would never see a college or a white-collar job, many of my peers saw my classmates and neighbors simply as “hard hats” – lesser beings who needed us to instruct them.  Many didn’t consider the gap between our privileged lives and their own.

We also were enormously suspicious of a military governed by law, tradition and accountability to a commander-in-chief influenced not only by the legendary “best and the brightest” but also by a legacy including Soviet power, the “loss” of China to Communism and the fear that it might be replicated – and a political and personal story that was rapidly becoming obsolete.  That perceived rigidity and “Dr. Strangelove” stereotypes governed us.

2016: That same distrust of the Establishment informs the Tea Party but it has also touched also many, many other Republicans/Conservatives.  As one commentator observed: “They deeply believe that President Obama has ruined America.”  Beyond their rage at him come the usual suspects: politicians who care only whether they lost their own jobs, hopelessness, inability to pay for their children’s education, a cynical, uncaring media, the disappearance of decent, well-paying jobs, an emerging multicultural America where it’s hard to find one’s place and a chaotic present from Ferguson to Syria to the Hungarian border.

The Sanders people share a good deal of that distrust, beginning with the economic inequality, frozen wages and dead-end jobs at the heart of his message, but not ending there.  Add suspicion of the mainstream media (MSM), the police, college costs and crippling student loans, racism, sexism, union-busting and all the rest.

So yes, there’s plenty of common ground between that turbulent year and today.  And it’s hard to underestimate  how far we might have gone back then if we’d had the Internet.

Even so, I can’t vote YES on this one.  The initial 60’s activists believed in so much more.  So many moments have been declared the day “America lost its innocence” and certainly they chipped away at it: Vietnam, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the Chicago Democratic convention, Watergate, Irangate, the Clinton scandals, Oklahoma City, Challenger, the 1980 election and, of course, 9/11.  Those who have chosen action since those shattering events are almost a different species – at least those 40 and younger.

These losses also inform Trump and Tea Party voters, I think, as they try to turn back the clock and reconstitute an American that is no more.

As for the left, after years during which unions were decimated, blue-collar wages eviscerated, voting rights emasculated, women’s rights torn away and racial and religious tensions breaking every heart…  well, it sounds familiar but it’s so much tougher because what’s happening now has moved our country backward and the left is fighting to hang onto or reclaim lost rights, not win new ones.

It really doesn’t matter anyway.  Things look bad right now, and optimism, belief in the possibility of positive change… do you see it anywhere?

*Actually we only got 42% of the vote but that was so high against such a powerful politician and Democratic machine that it really was a “win” and caused him, a month or so later, to declare he would not “seek nor will I accept” the nomination to run for a second term.

Big Birthday Memory #17: They Will Campaign Against Us Until We’re All Dead – and Maybe After

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from July 9, 2008

From the day Richard Nixon was nominated in 1968 until Tuesday afternoon, forty years later, when John McCain began running this “Love” commercial, Republicans have been running against us.  All of us who share a history of opposing the Vietnam war and working to elect an anti-war president.  Against everything we ever were, believed, dreamed, voted for, marched against, volunteered to change, spoke about, created, sang, wrote, painted, sculpted or said to one another on the subway or the campus or anyplace else from preschool parent nights to Seders to the line at the supermarket.

How is it possible that what we tried to do is still the last best hope to elect a Republican?  They used it against John Kerry.  They used it against Max Cleland.  They did it every time (well, almost) they were losing policy battles in the Clinton years.  They called CSPAN and said unspeakable things.   And now they are using the history of people my side of sixty to run against a man who was, if my math is right, seven years old during this notorious “summer of love” which – I might add, had nothing to do with those of us working to end the war.  In fact, there were two strands of rebellion in those years.  The Summer of Love/Woodstock folks and the political, anti-war activists.

Leary_nyt_cropped_2At the 1967 National Student Association Convention in Maryland, I saw a room full of students boo Timothy Leary off the stage, literally.  We didn’t want to “turn on, tune in, drop out” we wanted to organize against the war.   The anti-war movement was not a party.  I know that’s not a bulletin but it is so hard to see all of us reduced to a single mistaken stereotype.  Those who chose to find a personal solution weren’t nuts; communes and home-made bread were a lot more immediate gratification than march after march, teach-in after teach-in, speech after speech.  “If you’re goin’ to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”  Tempting, romantic – and not us.

Even more painful is the fact that the cultural and political divide is still so intense that research (I assume) told the McCain guys that this commercial would work.  That our patriotic, committed efforts to change our country’s path, and the cultural alienation that drove others toward the streets of San Francisco, combine to become a stronger motivator than all the desperate issues we face today, this side of those 40 years.  Perhaps even worse, these Bush years have dismantled so many of the successes we did have, so that in addition to facing, yet again, this smear against the activism of 1968 (and I repeat, that wasforty years ago — longer than most of the bloggers I know have been alive) there’s the awareness of what we did that has been undone.

I need to say here that I grew up on the shores of the Monongehela River in Pittsburgh and my classmates were kids who mostly went into
the steel mills or the Army after high school.  I knew plenty of supporters of the war.  I went to prom and hung out at the Dairy Queen with them.  But it never occurred to me to demonize them, to hold against them their definition of patriotism.

I’m not writing off or looking down upon those who did support the war; I’m saying that this cynical, craven abuse of the devotion of people on
both sides to the future of their country is reprehensible and precisely the kind of behavior that has broken the hearts of so many Americans, on those both sides of the political spectrum, who just want their candidates to lead us in hope for what our country can be, not defame others whose dreams aren’t quite the same as theirs.

Big Birthday Memory #16: (More 1968) Obama, Clinton, New Hampshire And Primaries – 1968 And 2008

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from January 8, 2008.

McCarthy and Cindy wide2In the 1968 New Hampshire primary, 40 years ago, Senator Eugene McCarthy got 42% of the vote running against Lyndon Johnson .

That was enough to be viewed as a win, since no one thought he’d get anywhere close to those numbers.  That  victory by the only national politician with the guts to run against the Vietnam War sent a shock through the Democratic Party.

McCarthy’s effort, often called “The Children’s Crusade,” was comprised largely of college students (including me) who abandoned their studies to come to New Hampshire and work to help to stop the war.  Now, as I watch Barack Obama, and see the the numbers of young people propelling his success, I know just how they feel — and what awaits them if they fail. 

Then too, win or lose, things will be tough for Senator Clinton. Obama, seen not only as a change agent but also as someone who offe

That’s exactly what happened in 1968.  The New Hampshire victory brought Robert Kennedy into the race – establishing, until his tragic death, a three-way battle – two dissidents against the juggernaut of the Democratic establishment.  Then later, Hubert Humphrey, candidate of that establishment and for years, as Vice President, public and energetic supporter of Johnson’s war, won the nomination.

To all of us, he had stolen the nomination.  Many (not me) were so bitter that they refused to vote for him.  (2016 NOTE: Let’s not let this happen again! That reluctance led to the election of Richard Nixon and all that followed.  Think how different things would be…) Remember, for most of us, as for many of Obama’s young supporters, this was our first presidential campaign.  Hillary Clinton, should she prevail further down the line, will face the same broken-hearted campaigners.  Once the anti-establishment, anti-war student and Watergate hearing staffer, in the eyes of these young people she’ll be cast as the villain.


For evidence of how long that bitterness lasts, take a look at this quote from the American Journalism Review, from the 1968 Chicago Convention recollections of veteran Washington Post columnist  David Broder.  It’s about me – but it’s also about any young American who takes a stand and loses .

He recalls coming into the hotel lobby from the park where demonstrations were underway and spotting a woman he had first met during the Eugene McCarthy campaign in New Hampshire. “Her name was Cindy Samuels,” Broder still remembers. “She was seated on a bench crying. She had been gassed. I went over and I put my arm around her and I said: ‘Cindy. What can I do for you?’ She looked up at me with tears on her face and said: ‘Change things.’

NOTE:  As I searched for links for this post I found a David Corn piece saying much the same thing.  I want to take note of it since the ideas came to me independently but I didn’t want it to seem that I drew from his.

Big Birthday Memory #10: Grey’s Anatomy, Bruce Springsteen, Memory and Me

Fade Away Mountain Lake

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from April 23, 2007.

Research shows that I’m hardly alone in this, but I have a deep and abiding fear of disappearing into the fog that is Alzheimer’s disease.  I’m approaching my 61st birthday, which, these days, is young.  Horrible to contemplate, but NOT old.  Actually even for the last generation it’s not much – my dad lived to be 78 and my mom 80.  So even in WWII generation terms, I’d have a good crack at at least 20 more years.  And when I think about dying I really worry more about the sadness of those I love than anything else.  No one wants her life to be over, but unlike many of my friends, including those far younger, I’m not terrified.

Alzheimer’s is different though.  If you read the statistics, the odds are pretty scary for all of us.  Today the New York Times reports (actually I think a little late – if you don’t have Times Select try this story on amNewYork) on a new awareness program by the Alzheimer’s Association.  Here’s the video(short.)  That’s good.

It even includes Kate Burton, Meridith Grey’s mother (Grey’s Anatomy for those of you not (Grey’s Anatomy for those of you not addicted already.)  Her character, in a series of almost unbearable episodes, suffered from Alzheimer’s.  There is so much written about this disease and the risk to our nation’s future, one person at a time, but if the documents are to be believed research is far behind potential.

As usual it’s a question of money.  And I know I should care about that.  I guess I do.  But what’s tougher for me is to face, almost daily, the small memory losses and forgetful moments of aging and not fear that they are all connected to the disease.  People my age even joke about it – calling it “old timer’s” disease or “senior moments” but all it is is awful.  To lose a word, see know the star of a classic film and not be able to retrieve the name, work a crossword puzzle (recommended to maintain brain “muscles” and besides I love them) and KNOW the missing word somewhere in your brain – but no place where you can get to it…. it’s all terrifying.

Think about it.  Spouses who’ve shared years of generating memories suddenly seeing you lose yours; knowing daily that your access to those moments is disappearing.  Children who’ve struggled to build strong and independent lives burdened with the emotional obligations created by a wasting disease in a parent.  Friends self-conscious and uneasy on visits they know they should make – if they even have the strength to make them.  Can you imagine anything worse – except the painful, protracted ending that cancer often brings?

As I write this, random thoughts wander through my mind.  Most dominant are lyrics from a Bruce Springsteen (of course) song.

I don’t wanna fade away, Oh I don’t wanna fade away, Tell me what can I do what can I say, Cause darlin’ I don’t wanna fade away.

Yeah it’s about the end of a love affair but it’s playing in my head as a kind of Alzheimer’s anthem so you have to listen too.

The other things are really corny but right now I think I need to be corny.  This one is part of what we read at the beginning of our wedding almost 36 years ago:  In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.  It’s from William Saroyan’s play The Time of Your Life.

The other is from Our Town.  And I know it’s old fashioned and sentimental.  But as I look this terror in the eye, I know it’s what I have to do to keep it at bay.

Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?–every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. Saints and poets, maybe–they do some.

I guess the answer to all this is to aim for the saints and the angels.  Nothing is going to prevent the future from happening; not faith, not love, not Hogwart’s magic, not even the miraculous gift of children.  So each day I need to be as present as I can.  Whatever happens it’s a blow against the unknown and a prayer of gratitude for the privilege of being present and aware.

Big Birthday Memory #9: Remembering JFK: 44 Years and 2 Days After the Kennedy Assassination


On the campaign trail. I would have given anything to be that kid.
On the campaign trail. I would have given anything to be that kid.


NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from November 24, 2007.

Thanksgiving Day was the 44th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy.  I didn’t want that to be my holiday post, though, so I’m writing about it today.**  I was a senior in high school when our vice-principal, Mr. Hall, a huge scary guy (and football coach) came onto the intercom and announced, his voice breaking, that President Kennedy had been shot, and had died.  I remember standing up and just walking out of my creative writing class.  No one stopped me – or any of the rest of us.  We wandered the halls in tears, then went home, riding the school bus in tears.  I remember the next morning, taking the car out and just driving around — running in to my friend Jack Cronin on his drugstore delivery route – and standing on McClellan Drive in his arms as we both wept.  I remember, Jewish girl that I was, going to Mass at St. Elizabeth’s Church that Sunday just to be with the people of his faith.  I cried for four days.

Years later, working on the TODAY SHOW 20th anniversary of the funeral, I remember all of it rushing back as we cut tape and realized as adults what a gift Jacqueline Kennedy had given the nation through the dignity and completeness of the funeral.  I know that many younger people find the Kennedys a little bit of a joke, thanks partly to the Simpsons, but it’s not possible to describe the grief and trauma of those days.  Or the gratitude we all felt for his presence — and the profound nature of the loss.

Though only 13, I had the great good fortune to attend the Kennedy Inauguration, traveling all night on the train with my mom to sit in the stands near the Treasure Building and watch the parade go by.  We stood outside the White House at the end of the parade, in the last of the blizzard, and watched him walk into the White House for the first time as president.  I’d seen the culmination of all the volunteer hours my 13-year-old self could eke out to go “down town” and stuff envelopes — to respond to the the call to help change the world.

It seems so pathetic now; the loss not only of JFK but of his brother, so beloved by my husband that he’s never been the same since 1968, the loss of Dr. King and Malcolm X, the trauma of Vietnam and all that followed, later of the shooting of John Lennon, even.  It seemed that all we’d dreamed about and hoped for – worked for – was gone.  How could we have been so romantic – so sure that we could bring change?  Believed it again in 1967 and 68 as we worked and marched against the war, for Eugene McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy, for civil rights and for peace, for better education and environmental policies, for rights for women, gay Americans and so much more.  Most of us haven’t stopped but the American media obsession with America’s loss of innocence emerges from the pain of those weeks.

Now, to me, even the idea of innocence seems a bit — well — innocent.  In our case, innocence came largely from a combination of lack of experience and of knowledge.  We didn’t know that we stood for the take over of Central American countries and the support of Franco and Salazar as well as the Marshall Plan and remarkable courage and commitment of World War II.  We were too close to the WWII generation to have the historic separation that’s possible today.  So was much of the rest of the world: in Europe, South America, Africa — all over the world — the Kennedys had won hearts and minds.  It’s almost impossible to imagine in light of our standing in the world today.  And that’s part of the grief too.  Even though much of the anger at the US outside Iraq is based on a warped version of political correctness, we know the experience of riding from the glory of having “liberated” Europe through the Marshall Plan and the glory of the Kennedy outreach to the rest of the world.  Personally and publicly, John Kennedy validated all that we wanted to see in ourselves – all that we wanted ourselves, and our country, to be.  And today, despite all the revelations of the years since, 44 years and two days later, that’s still true.

Big Birthday Memory #8: In Honor of Indiana and Donald Trump (Pigs, Lipstick, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin And The Movies: “Bob Roberts”, “A Face In The Crowd” And Willie Stark)

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from September 10, 2008.  This post appears now because it’s about demagogues and politics and the Indiana primary is today.

Of course by now we’ve all seen this.

I wrote much of what appears below without knowing just how to begin it – and those wacky Republicans solved my problem.  The response to this boilerplate Obama statement was to issue a vicious attack accusing him of sexism because of Palin’s convention speech “lipstick/hockey mom/pitbull” quote.  This despite the fact that the metaphor has often been used by Republicans including Dick Cheney – to say nothing of John McCain – look here:

The McCain campaign, not only in its choice of Sarah Palin but in how they use her, is leaning on very scary  tactics that are similar to the successful exploitation of voters illustrated by some of the most memorable characters in American political films.  Watch this trailer for Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts; see if it isn’t more familiar than you wish:

Creepy, isn’t it?  A demagogue making his way to the top by lying about his opponent and manipulating the alienation of the American people for his own ends.  That could never happen in real life, right?

Much, much earlier in film history, the beloved Andy Griffithplayed one of the scariest public personalities ever in A Face in the Crowd — written by Budd Schulberg and directed by On the Waterfront‘s Elia Kazan.  He’s not a politician but watch the trailer and see if it doesn’t seem familiar.  You have to watch until the end to get the full impact.

It’s so depressing — and enraging — to watch this campaign peddling pseudo-folksiness to win over its public.  It’s time for that to stop working in our country.  Stakes are too high to permit us (or the press) to fall for the most  approachable (and least honest) over the most excellent.

Finally, remember Robert Penn Warren’s remarkable novel, clearly based on Louisiana’s Huey LongAll the King’s Men?  It portrays a politician on his path to becoming a dangerous demagogue.  Yeah, I know it’s melodramatic but does it feel at all familiar?

Clearly we should consider these archetypal characters as cautionary tales; instructive representations of our future if we allow this kind of campaigning to prevail.  Movies are our largest export (unless video games have taken over while I wasn’t looking)  and often reflect, if not our truths, at least our ghosts, shadows and neuroses.  It gave us The Body Snatchers in the 50’s, Easy Rider in the 60’s and Working Girl and Wall Street in the 80’s.  It’s easy to be seductive, to manipulate language and truth; easy to pretend to be one of the people in order to win them. The vicious, craven strategies of this campaign – and Sarah Palin herself – are  perfect examples; John McCain, whom I used to admire, has allowed, no encouraged, this shameful campaigning in his name and surrendered all the positions of principal that he once held.  If we don’t want (another) Bob Roberts (He does remind me of GWBush) or a cynical populist pretender or a MS Wilie Stark as our government, it’s up to use to exercise vigilance and fierce commitment to fight off these transparent manipulations and to ensure that it does not happen.

Big Birthday Memory #6: May Day, Pete Seeger, Joe Hill, Music and Values, Past and Future

Pete Seeger with Bob Dylan
Pete Seeger with Bob Dylan

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. This post – from March 3, 2008, appears today in honor of May Day.

I once had the opportunity to interview BB King. In preparation, I brought his latest album home and played it for my sons. The older, then around 5, asked me “Why is this man named King mommy. Pete Seeger is the king of music, right?*” Well, how do you answer that? Our boys grew up on the Weavers, the Almanac Singers, Pete and Arlo at Carnegie Hall… all rich with wonderful songs (with pretty wonderful values) for children. I asked my husband, no folkie, why he didn’t complain about the “noise” – and in fact joined us every Thanksgiving at Carnegie Hall to hear Pete and later Pete and Arlo. He said (I’m paraphrasing here) “It’s offering them something whole to believe in. Even if they don’t always believe it – they’ll understand the feeling of believing – and always seek it.” As far as I can tell, that worked.

Rerack a few years though — to the Vietnam war, when songs like this informed some of my earliest political ideas.

In fact, Pete has been a hero of mine for more than 40 years (How is that possible?) As I sit watching the AMERICAN MASTERS documentary on his life, I can’t stop thinking about all the hope, idealism and dreams tied up in his music – at least in my life — and, for a time, the lives of my sons. Seeger always has believed that music has infinite power; his own music made us believe that we could bring about the world we dreamed of. I’m embarrassed by how much I long for those feelings; it’s probably one reason Barack Obama and his young supporters interest me so much – they remind me of…. ME. Pretty feeble, isn’t it? To still be whining about long-lost days and dreams. Most of all, to feel such rage and sadness at what we weren’t able to do for our children; we leave them a world, in many ways, so much tougher than the one we inherited.

Pete, though, would hate such talk. I once met him, around the time that there were civil rights battles raging in the old Chicago Back of the Yards neighborhoods that Saul Alinsky helped to organize. I asked him if it didn’t bother him that the residents there revealed attitudes so contrary to what had been fought for — for them — just a generation ago. His response “No. When people are empowered they have the right to want what they want. If we believe in empowerment we have to accept that too.” NOT a usual man, Mr. Seeger.

The music was more than a transmission of values though — from “A Hole in My Bucket” to Union Maid. It was our family soundtrack. One of my kids was watching WOODSTOCK while he was in college, and was astonished to hear Joan Baez singing Joe Hill – and to recognize it from when he was little (this is a bad YOUTUBE version; the proportions are off, but just listen..

In our house, that old labor song had been a lullaby. I’d learned it from Pete’s concerts. Recently, so many years from those lullabies, another family favorite presented us with a great, rolicking tribute to this remarkable man. I wanted to end with a more of this (way too) sentimental tribute to Pete, but the joy of watching another generation up out of their seats in song is probably a better way to end. Right?

*He went on to become an enormous BB King (and Albert, for that matter) fan, for the record.