Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Local Politics

My first political memory is of a straw poll taken at my Catholic grade school, in suburban Kansas City, in which my sixth grade class chose Bush over Dukakis. I think the vote was something like 16 to 2. That fall, we had written individual letters to President Reagan, asking him to limit the tax exposure of parents who sent their kids to parochial, rather than public, school. There was some expectation that the newly loyal Midwestern Catholic vote might sway his position on the issue, a kind of political payback. My letter began, "Dear Mr. President, I know that you are a smart man." The teacher used it to show the value of buttering someone up before asking them for a favor. Then, I could not imagine why anyone would vote for Governor Dukakis. He seemed very short. He had an irritating voice. Also, my impersonation of George Bush, which was really every white boy's impersonation of Dana Carvey impersonating George Bush that year, seemed to have long legs. I did a serviceable Carvey, and Carvey was cool. Jon Lovitz did Dukakis, but no one wanted to imitate Jon Lovitz.

A friend in that class had a signed photograph of Vice-President Bush, with a smudge across the signature. The friend explained that the smudge meant the signature had been signed by the Vice-President himself, rather than the auto-signing machine; an automated signature would be printed with the photograph, as a single image, so the ink wouldn't smudge. We accepted his logic at face blue. The photograph became a minor totem in our classroom. It meant that Vice-President Bush listened to schoolchildren across America, but especially in Kansas; that he acknowledged us; that he took the time to not only read his mail but select the most deserving to write back; that our letters had turned the tide against the burden of double-taxed parents who sent their kids to Catholic schools; that we were heroes, elect in our cause, soon to be elevated to the sort of everychildren-in-the-audience who were mentioned in State of the Union addresses and photographed the next day for the local newspaper. Soon, we imagined, we would be signing our own photographs. We would receive so many requests that it might be easier to simply photocopy our signature across the front page and hand those out to those strangers we did not know, who seemed only to be jumping on the bandwagon at the very last minute; those late-inning carpetbaggers we had seen everywhere, wearing Royals ball caps and George Brett jerseys, a few years earlier, when the Royals had come out of nowhere to finally win the World Series.

Last week, a New York Times article, "Competitor in Chief," profiled President Obama's seeming compulsion for excelling at everything, however real or imagined. To his base, it is a relief to see a polyglot egghead who not only wins, but beats the other guy, often in sports. To his critics, it must seem confirmation that the president overestimates his abilities and, in the special echo chamber of the White House, lacks equally foresight and hindsight. Conviction, in the face of certain evidence, is wonderful when its our guy (a real leader, committed to ideals, playing the long game and staying the course) and terrifying when its the other guy (fool-headed, dangerous, out of touch, and unwilling to listen to reason). I can't see where the coin turns, or how quickly. Perhaps the fact of the coin's motion is incidental to its progress; we look for arc and find cycle, or we look for cycle and find only the arc. One fact of these last four years is the continued intense concentration of privilege and wealth within America. Liberals see the wealth and perhaps exclude the privilege, while conservatives fear the privilege and look politely past the wealth. Unemployment may be at a record high nationally, but not for those who can afford to pay for college and professional degrees.

I'm excited for the Affordable Health Care Act to go fully into law in 2014. I wish it was a state-run single-payer system, because that seems like the most efficient option for the best care. I'd like to see the Supreme Court move from the right back toward the center. I'd be thrilled if it leaned hard left. It seems right to me that people can choose to abort fetuses when they don't want to raise babies. I can't believe anyone anymore opposes gay marriage or gays in the military, but since they still do, I'm glad the Democrats are forcefully for both. I don't have a strong feeling about any of the following, but they all seem to have had good outcomes in the short-term, for the country: bailing out Wall Street, rescuing the auto industry in the United States, and ending the Iraq War. I would have liked to see the Guantanamo prison closed and employment rates skyrocket. I'm disappointed the President hasn't committed more forcefully to curbing greenhouse gas emissions, so much so that I would vote for Mitt Romney if he made this a top priority (instead, he's for expanding energy development and denying climate change). Seeing Lily Ledbetter speak last night, I thought how the Democrats tackle issues, like pay equity, that aren't necessarily opposed by Republicans, but rather go unacknowledged within the different value systems of Republican administrations.

I don't imagine my vote will be contested. I live in Northern California, where super PACs fear to tread. There is no low political fence to jump, even in the shadow of the Hoover Tower.

Four years ago, I arrived to Northern California with the sincere hope that a life would take shape. I'm so grateful, on every front, for that life. If neither precedent nor prognosis makes the future stable; if instability is chronic in a life; still, there is much to be hopeful for and about today. After Katie's death, I was taken in by her family and my own. I was given the time and space to grieve for and reflect on the end of a life. Then, I could not imagine working, much less looking forward. I'd like to think our prosperous society can provide that time and space for everyone who needs it. At the very least, we can try to provide it.

I'll crib two famous Democrats to close. Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local." It seems easier than ever to patchwork a constituency of like-minded individuals who only seem local, across our inter-webs, even as, however connected, we do not always feel prosperous. It is easy, in boom and bust times, to suspect the other guy is not only prospering but somehow screwing us, our values, and our way of life. Interconnection destabilizes us when it makes us feel dependent on fragile consensuses, and so, vulnerable. The human condition is essentially vulnerable. Only so much of our situation is within grasp, however far into the ether we reach, and whomever we find. I like how Ted Strickland closed his speech to the DNC last night, firing up the base with the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6, Verse 21: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

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