Election day of 2004 found me in, of all places, Austin, Texas. I had been working as a contractor at the time, designing a dimensional database for an Austin-based company. That night I watched the election returns with some co-workers at a jazz club on Sixth Street. The place was empty except for us, the bartender, a single waitress, and the four musicians on stage. The sound was turned all the way down on the multiple televisions scattered throughout the club, but the CNN graphics told the story well enough. It was going to be close again, but we were going to also lose again. I couldn’t decide whether I was shocked that we had re-elected the man I believed to be the worst president in history, or it was completely predictable. I admit that I had been frustrated by the ineptitude of John Kerry’s campaign. It followed in a long line of inept campaigns: Al Gore’s, Mike Dukakis’s, George McGovern’s. Still, the sheer incompetence of George W. Bush had been stunning in itself. We were already embroiled in a preemptive war that we had started based on provocations that at best had been imagined and at worst, manufactured. Our president had embarrassed us all around the world. He embarrassed us every time he opened his mouth. Clearly, anyone could be better.
Little did I know that the worst was yet to come.
I was still working in Austin the following August when Hurricane Katrina swept through the gulf and devastated New Orleans. New Orleans, just like Austin, was among the few places I had traveled to on business over the years that I had fallen in love with. I guess it’s a weakness for places with thriving musical scenes, great restaurants, and a unique local cultural identities that defy the force of suburban blandness. (Yeah, I know I live in Columbia, MD). The cruel, seemingly vindictive, neglect that caused New Orleans to become a post-apocalyptic nightmare enraged me, even while my conservative business associates were making callous, even racist wisecracks about the misery in New Orleans. On September 3, 2005, I wrote to a friend:
I first visited New Orleans in 1994 when I went there for a week to work a Computer Associates Trade show. It was love at first sight. The music, the food, the architecture, the way people talk, the pride and love that the they have for their history and culture. I was back there many times over the years and it became my favorite place in the whole world. I’ve got no illusions about the poverty and crime there — there were parts of the city that were very dangerous — but I still loved the place.
I’ve been in a slow burn this whole week. Having traveled a bit around America and having met lots of folks on all sides of the political spectrum, I have a pretty positive opinion of the generosity and decency of the American people when they know the truth. I know that all of us would have been fine this week if the entire country ground to a halt while every single plane, bus and truck in the land were sent there to rescue people. All that was needed for that to happen was for the president to pick up the phone and to call a few CEO’s. They would have done it and the rest of us would have managed. I should not have been able to get on my plane back from Austin last night because the plane I was on should have been flying refugees, food or medicine. Instead there are dead children on the floor of the convention center where I once pitched my software. They weren’t killed by looters or by the “armed thugs” on Magazine Street, or by an “act of God”. They were killed by that vacuous, amoral idiot in the White House. Born-again Christian? That’s a crock. Somehow, in all that time he claims he spent reading the gospels, he missed part where it says that we are here to take care of one another. I guess it’s easy to miss, since Jesus only says it two or three times on each page.
Katrina was, of course, the turning point in George W. Bush’s relationship with the American people. It exposed the corruption, the cronyism, the incompetence, the contempt for the basic values on which this country was founded. But it had been going on for years. Sometimes it was obvious, but most often it wasn’t. It was a gradual slide that happened over decades.
That night in Austin, I was reminded of an election night, long ago in another city. I was young, idealistic, and enraptured by my beautiful and equally young and idealistic dinner companion. We had no idea what our lives would be, who we would become, or even if we would be together in the future. Such is the stuff of college romances. The Italian restaurant in downtown Albany, like the club in Austin twenty-four years later, was empty but for us. It was “our place,” and I’m cursing myself because I can’t recall the name of it. There was a small black and white television set on the bar that night, that I could see over my date’s shoulder. We didn’t pay much attention to it during our dinner. Instead, we enjoyed our veal marsala, and our cabernet, and the family who owned the restaurant and knew us, served us with warm quiet smiles, leaving us to ourselves.
Suddenly, something on the TV caught my eye. One of the candidates, our candidate, was making a speech. It was far too early in the evening for anyone to be making a concession. I called out for the sound to be turned up, and we watched in shocked silence as Jimmy Carter conceded to Ronald Reagan. In retrospect, I guess we should not have been shocked. The polls in the weeks leading up to the election had been discouraging and we should have expected it, but as I remember it now, we were stunned. Perhaps it was the decisiveness of the defeat. Maybe it was the fact that we had both grown up in liberal families in New York City that left us so unprepared. My date was inconsolable and I’m ashamed now that my first thoughts were about how this was going to affect the rest of my evening. For better and worse, it affected the rest of our lives.
What had happened, which seemed disorienting at first, was a fundamental change in values. “Government can’t solve the problem, government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan. At the time, this played well to a population facing record unemployment, high interest rates, and recurring energy crises. As a policy statement, over the years it came to mean, government shirking its fundamental responsibilities in the name of privatization. “Government can’t do anything right, they screw everything up,” became the mantra, and everyone, especially the most vulnerable people in society were forced to fend for themselves. The free market was God, whether you manufactured refrigerators, built cars, sold mortgages, or provided healthcare. Somehow, if you needed a coronary bypass operation, you were supposed to shop around for the best price as if you were buying a mini-van. And the Kafkaesque experience of dealing with getting HMO to actually pay for a claim is supposed to be better than dealing with a government “bureaucracy”? One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that while dealing with health insurance companies has gotten decidedly worse, dealing with the DMV has gotten easier.
But that’s just so much liberal whining. We learned that trees cause pollution and we were lectured about Cadillac driving welfare queens that no one could actually find. Instead of expecting the State to coddle us, it was entrepreneurship that would lead the way. It was the golden age of the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship certainly had created innovation in the past and had made this country great. But just how many of us need to become entrepreneurs? All 300 million of us? And what about the two thirds of all new businesses that fail? Our needs are modest. Most of us simply want honest work that we can do proudly and allows us to support our families. Living truly enriched lives, loving our families and instilling compassionate values in our children, improving our communities and the lives of our fellow citizens were given lip-service while we made Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal a bestseller and CEO’s became rock stars.
Instead of improving our society, by making it more just, more fair, more humane, we embarked on a massive redistribution of wealth, which conservatives deny they perpetrated. The wealth of this nation has been redistributed from the vast middle class that was born in the years following World War Two and had survived until the early 1980’s, to an increasingly smaller and smaller minority who had the money to buy lower taxes, and increased protection by the government. Ronald Reagan may have been right in declaring “Government is the problem,” but in a way he never intended.
Over time, the changes permeated our society. Liberal became a pejorative term, as used not only by southern conservative republicans, but by newscasters and pundits. Even liberals started calling themselves progressives just to avoid the L-word. The Vietnam War became a glorious cause, not a horrible mistake, and the one lesson the president had learned from it was not to give up in the face of overwhelming opposition from his own people, not to mention international allies. Our failure in Vietnam was because we surrendered became the commonly accepted wisdom.
It all became a nightmare to me. I had seen all those events through a child’s eyes. The war, the civil rights movement, a nation struggling to make itself more perfect. As an adult I saw that nothing had been learned at all. Questioning an immoral and unjustified war was an act of treason.
And so on that election night in Austin in 2004, I wondered how it was possible that we had re-elected a man who had already proven himself completely unsuitable to the job. And I remembered that night in Albany, when it all began, when the world suddenly became out of kilter in my eyes. When I was told, “You don’t matter, your values are false, everything you think and feel is immoral.”
It took Katrina, and all the rest of the past four years of this disaster — torture, neglected veterans, illegal wire-taps, the assault on the environment, the economic meltdown — to show just how far we have gone off track.
But there have been things that I never believed I’d see. A woman mounted a serious campaign for the presidency. Even more surprising, she was defeated by an African-American man. And then that African-American weathered still raging storms of fear and racism to a decisive victory. I don’t think that young couple in the Albany restaurant, as naive and idealistic as they were, could ever have imagined that. Although I can’t really speak for what she now believes, I’ll take a chance and try to say whether we can imagine it now.
Yes we can.
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