She yelled at me two or three times today, for trivial reasons. She wasn’t really mad at me. Her nerves were shot by Election Day Jitters. She detests Donald Trump and everything he stands for. Doomsayers among the left-leaning media she favors, and what appears to be a whole “twitter verse,” are beating the drums of fear: insurrection in the streets at the least, open civil war more likely, regardless of who claims victory.
When I have mildly suggested the Republic has stood shocks greater than this election, and will stand, sometimes she says she hopes so. Other times, she tends to yell. (Usually on a pretext. For instance, my not having paid for extended virus protection on this machine, which made me the target of one of those out-of-India scams. Get five full years protection for just $700!)
My empathy aches for her angst. She is my lady love, and we are both 77 damn years old, and life remaining is too short for this political badinage. I reminded her today we have survived almost twenty Presidential elections. Seventy-seven divided by four. She paused in her bemoaning. It’d be twenty if we were eighty, she said. I said, given your concerns, I wouldn’t give odds we’ll make it. Made my own pause. Not sure whether I mean us, or the Republic…
Her wonderful sense of humor flashed through for a moment, before gloom again clouded her features. That might not be a joke this time…Then we sat down to Sunday brunch, eggs in browned butter, whole-wheat toast, Johnsonville sausage. Tillamook strawberry yogurt laced with ground pecans. Santa Fe pinon-nut coffee mail-ordered from New Mexico. Living well is the best revenge. The dog approved the sausage scraps and licked up the buttered-egg residue. Settled later, with more coffee and a corncob full of Vintage Estate, I got to thinking about politics. Something I mainly avoid.
I’ve kept my opinions about the Trumpster to myself. I liked the way he came from behind to dust off Hillary Clinton, a person for whom I hold mostly contempt, with a soupcon of pity. It was The Don against the GOP establishment first, then against the Democrats. A maverick outsider with an ego the size of China. Everybody betting against him.
I had a sentimental hope he would prove a real-life Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s iconic individualist, and upend the status quo. It appeared enough denizens of the “basket of deplorables” agreed with me. He squeaked through. And the Blitzkrieg of Words began. The virtual din has become so pervasive it will take a cooling-off period of years for historical perspective to determine if he actually managed to drain an acre or two of swamp. Or accomplished anything of note at all.
I waited in vain for him to show his stuff, step out of the phone booth with his Roark tights on. One could be forgiven for thinking everybody hates Trump without reservation. Which, frankly, seems as silly as hating the big-footed circus clown driving the clown car. On evidence, he is a buffoon. No less, and not much more. A joke in bad taste. But…
But today I stumbled across a Washington Post article that introduced me to The Clash of Civilizations, a Harvard political scientist’s thesis that, post-Cold War, the primary source of conflict between peoples will be cultural and religious beliefs. The professor, Samuel P. Huntington, argued future wars would be not between nations, but cultures. As if he predicted the rise of bogus “caliphates” and other cultural constructs. Inspiring strange bedfellows in the opposing forces, ex-Commies and Kurds and dilatory Turks. Usually reliable Wikipedia says Huntington believed the “age of ideology” had ended with the Cold War. And the world has “reverted to a normal state of affairs characterized by cultural conflict….”
There are people old enough to vote this time that were still in cribs when cultural conflict brought the Twin Towers down in smoking ruin. Nobody much noticed when the Muslims dynamited large, age-old statues of Buddha on the grounds no art should show a human form. Slaughter in Paris over anger at a cartoonist lampooning Mohammed? Well, gee, resident Muslims feel “stigmatized” because the French got angry about that. And a recent twitter-storm erupted over the Chinese destroying “onion-dome” mosques and filling concentration camps with Muslims.
Against this backdrop, a columnist reported that Trump, in Europe, made a speech about pulling together to hold alien cultures at bay. Wait, what? Everybody knows Trump never reads a book. Let alone a Harvard professor’s predictions! So how does he get off positioning himself as a culture warrior?
And then there’s this: the Chinese leadership is actively courting Biden, deeply furious at the “trade war” they say Trump started with them. The Chinese represent one of the “civilizations” identified by the professor as fated to clash. And little-noticed stories tell of Trump Administration moves to bolster India to strengthen its ability to contest with China for hegemony over that side of the planet. India being another of those “civilizations” the prof predicted as an actor in the culture wars.
Does any of this matter to the American electorate, stunned by pandemic and thousands of protest demonstrations, some violent? Probably not. The only thing I remember about Biden, before he became Gabby Hayes to Obama’s Roy Rogers, was when he was a senator. I was a lot younger then, and more interested in worldly events, and watched his interviews about foreign relations. He came across as reasoned and knowledgeable. If the chips fall his way, the Chinese may get a surprise or two. Hopefully so will any other “culture” desiring a clash with the U.S.
Regardless of who wins, or how, my native optimism remains: the Republic will stand. It was built to last longer than we were meant to last, by men who knew what they were doing. Leaders who followed them either honored or dishonored the Founding Fathers in their tinkering and posturing — but the Republic stands.
In a way, the present political angst flashes me back sixty years to when I was seventeen. Eisenhower had been President for half of my young life. I had come to respect his quiet, understated form of leadership and felt distinctly uneasy about either of the two men — Kennedy and Nixon — vying to replace him. There were high school debates in civics class that year about who was the better man. If we had staged a straw poll, I would have been inclined to write in “none of the above.”
Which in turn takes me all the way back to Episcopal Day School in 1952, the year Ike was contending with Adlai Stevenson for the Oval Office while “Atomic Bomb” Harry Truman still had the job. Our teachers staged a mock campaign, assigning different kids to tout the values of Ike and Adlai, before we held a straw vote. The big issue was the Korean Conflict — points deducted from our grade if we called it a war, because Congress had not declared war. I had a dog in that fight, as we said down South. My favorite uncle was on a destroyer roving the coast of North Korea and exchanging fire with shore batteries. I’ve told some of this before, but old age is entitled to some repetition, n’est ce pas?
I was solidly in Adlai Stevenson’s camp for reasons that seemed so natural I never questioned them. One, I was raised in the Cracker Party, a Southern subdivision of the Democrats. Two, and more important, my grandmother had informed me Gene Autry was for Adlai. That alone was sufficient, because Gene Autry was my childhood hero.
I had snapshots of myself and my brother tucked under Gene’s arms when he was on tour, wearing his trademark white Stetson and a big grin. I had shots of my mother smiling happily, arm in arm with Gene and all bundled up in a winter coat on another tour. We were members in good standing of his fan club, ate dinner in the same hotel dining rooms as his troupe, and I actually got to sit in Champion’s saddle backstage one time.
(My younger brother remembers Gene riding Champ down the auditorium aisle in Augusta, our home-town, and reining in to invite me aboard. He swears I cowered into my seat, face covered, until they left and gave some other lucky lad a thrill of a lifetime. Of course, he adds wryly, he himself must have been invisible. My brother’s version of the Smothers Brothers lament: “I never even had a chicken.” I have absolutely no memory of such shame, but it sounds like me. Backstage was different, safer. What I do recall is when my brother was cranky the morning the troupe was preparing to depart Spartanburg for another venue, Smiley Burnett and Pat Buttram vied with one another to trick him into laughing. In his creaky voice, Pat said Earl was one of the toughest audiences they ever worked.
(None of this Gene Autry stuff was known to my Episcopal Day School classmates, because I thought it none of their business. They all preferred Roy Rogers anyway. My grandmother thought it odd that I didn’t want my classmates to know I had been allowed to sit on Champ’s saddle. I told her: I know; that’s enough.)
But I felt duty-bound to lobby hard for Adlai Stevenson during our mock election. If he was good enough for Gene, he was good enough for me. I remember there was a big hoop-de-do about a highly circulated photograph of Stevenson gazing up at a big picture on a wall, idly wiping the top of one of his dress shoes on the calf of his opposite pant leg. Taken from behind, the photo revealed a big hole in the sole of his shoe. I could not understand what all the fuss was about because at my family’s income level, worn-out soles were a fact of life. Shoes were a once-a-year purchase, but only if your feet had grown too big for the old ones.
When the final debate before our straw vote was held, the teacher announced that Ike had promised, if elected, to go to Korea and get that mess straightened out. A pretty impressive promise from the commander-in-chief of the forces that defeated Nazi Germany, she said. Harry Truman had fired Douglas MacArthur for insubordination when MacArthur was in charge of Korea, leaving Ike with the highest-ranking un-besmirched military record. My opponent in the third-grade debate of course seized on Ike’s promise, to drive home the superiority of his candidate. No other issue, foreign or domestic, was worthy of consideration until Ike fixed Korea. And only Ike could. Stevenson was no general.
I had my back to the wall. The whole class was with my opponent. I loyally insisted that Stevenson was a good man who could fix it. I almost said even Gene Autry thought so, but had sense enough to keep that to myself. Finally the teacher gave me one last chance to recoup before our vote. “How would you fix Korea if you were Mr. Stevenson and elected to the Presidency?”
My mouth flew open and the words came out. Where they came from, I still have no idea. “If I were Mr. Stevenson and elected President,I would assign General Eisenhower to go to Korea and fix it. That’s what Presidents do; pick the best man for the job.”
The class broke up into fits of laughter. What an idiot I was! When the ballot was tallied, Stevenson got one vote. I almost cried, which would have completed my humiliation. I had failed Gene Autry, and my grandmother. History records the electorate went along with my classmates. The Eisenhower years began. The Korean Conflict ended in a dangerous stalemate whose toxic shadow still threatens the world as we know it, and no subsequent President has been able to do anything about it.
My teacher back then gave me a top grade for my failing argument, which surprised me, and said my final point showed wisdom beyond my years. I was not mollified; a loss is a loss.
The Republic survived eight years of Ike, the questionable Yankee who replaced him, and even the corrupt Texan who inherited the mantle after Dealey Plaza, and embroiled us in another unwinnable war.
I learned a lot of respect for Eisenhower before he retired to his Gettysburg farm. But I still think he would have served us better back in uniform. As a General rather than President, going to Korea and cleaning up the mess left by that other five-star General, the self-styled Great Man who once snottily referred to Ike as the best company clerk he ever had. A Great Man fired by a Missouri haberdasher, and who then “faded away” without his own run for the Oval Office.
Wonder who will fade away this time? Whoever it is, I still say the Republic will stand. We’d better, when no less than a Harvard prof has predicted a massive “clash of civilizations.” As a last resort, the world still needs a culture, however dented and dinged, that holds certain truths to be self-evident.