It was late October, 1956. A cold rain was falling and the playground at William Cullen Bryant school (named after the 19th century poet and editor of the New York Evening Post) was a labyrinth of mud puddles.
We were perhaps a week away from the presidential election that pitted the eminently decent Adlai Stevenson of Illinois against the eminently decent incumbent, President Dwight David Eisenhower, who was little more than a decade removed from commanding Allied Forces in the invasion of Normandy.
I was in fourth grade in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Republican country. One of the bigger kids in school even then, but not as big as the sixth graders who took my overshoes and wouldn’t give them back. I spent the entire recess running after them in my stocking feet, splashing through the frigid puddles until my feet were soaked and frozen.
Why? Because they liked Ike and I was for Adlai.
My folks were Roosevelt Democrats, survivors of the Great Depression. Most of my classmates were Republicans. Almost a quarter century had passed since Franklin Delano Roosevelt began the massive rescue of the American Midwest from the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and the bungling Herbert Hoover – but folks out in the Nebraska panhandle forgot all that in record time. They were rock-ribbed Republicans then, they are rock-ribbed Republicans now.
That, unfortunately, is about the only thing that has remained the same. Decency, honour, truth, helping your neighbours, refraining from anything more serious than snatching a kid’s overshoes on a muddy playground? That’s all gone, swept away by Fox News and Ann Coulter and the nastiest four years of American politics since Reconstruction.
When I made my first, nervous trip back to Scottsbluff in 1975, I had been in my parents’ home no more than a few minutes when I saw the neighbor across the street heading our way. He was Mick Darnell, one of the Marine Corps heroes of Guadalcanal. I had left the country over Vietnam. This was not going to be good.
Mick welcomed me with open arms. I was a hometown kid, the neighborhood boy who had once shattered a window in his garage playing basketball, the tall skinny one who had been splattered on a football field by his linebacker son, Mike.
That’s how it was then – small-town Americans were neighbors and friends first and everything else after. One side of the street might be red and the other blue, but you still sat together to cheer for the Scottsbluff Bearcats when it was time for Friday Night Football.
No more. That world is as gone as the Dust Bowl. Now caravans of Trump supporters try to run a Biden campaign bus off the highway in Texas, and the president himself tweets “I Love Texas.” There is intimidation everywhere, the very real fear that this will erupt into running street battles or even civil war.
After four years of Making America Great, Donald J. Trump and his deplorables have brought Third World politics to America. Going to stage a peaceful march to a polling station? Cops will pepper spray your kids. Want to cast your ballot at a curbside polling station approved by the state in order to avoid exposure to COVID-19? A corrupt Republican judge will attempt the seizure of 117,000 ballots.
My late, wonderful friend Larry Grossman spent twenty years in the U.S. State Department, then retired to become an election observer for the United Nations in places like Angola. Today, Larry’s services are needed not in Angola or Somalia but in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Florida and Texas.
Today, the president threatens to declare himself the winner if he’s momentarily ahead, without waiting for the rest of the ballots to be counted.
Today, the president believes that if the voters repudiate his ugly brand of politics, a packed Supreme Court will keep him in power.
Today, Trump supporters surround the home of Trump’s own attorney general, the massively corrupt Bill Barr, because he has not yet found grounds to arrest Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden.
After four years of chaos, lies and incompetence, this is where we are, in the throes of the most perilous election since 1860, when things were at such a pitch that the victor, Republican Abraham Lincoln, had to be smuggled into Washington D.C.
I don’t know how great America was in the 1950s. It was not great for Blacks in the south, still suffering under the weight of Jim Crow. It wasn’t great for women anywhere. It was horrid for homosexuals.
And yet there was a current of decency in the political process itself and in interactions between individuals. You could be a Democrat and I could be a Republican and we could hang out, watch the World Series, kid about life. Today, if he’s a Trumper and you’re for Biden, you’re likely to go at it with fixed bayonets.
It was not always this way. Not at all. The most political act I can recall from my high school years was my friend Bruce Brandt wearing black for a month after Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. It was amiable and funny. He was not riding in the back of a pickup truck, carrying an AR-15 and threatening to blow someone’s head off if the election doesn’t go his way.
In a smallish city somewhere in Colorado, my grey-haired sisters work their tails off for Biden. They wear baseball caps that say “Vote, Bitches!” and they stand their ground at a demonstration when a Trumper with an AR-15 takes up his post across the street. Not aiming at them, quite, but attempting to intimidate nonetheless.
And when the Trump side of the street began chanting “Four More Years!” Saturday, one of my big-voiced sisters began the counter-cheer: “Four More Days!” The other joined in, and the crew of genteel Democrats drowned out the Trumpers. But it took courage simply to be there with menacing men in pickups cruising by with their middle fingers raised, and Trump supporters shouting “Democrats drink the blood of babies!”
Heavens. My sisters raised babies. Good ones. They were teachers for decades. They still help anywhere and in any way they can. Why should they have to listen to that, simply because they support a decent gentleman named Joe Biden?
I live in Canada now. Mercifully. Never has the difference between the two countries been more pronounced than in the response to this horrifying pandemic. We’ve had our own struggles with COVID-19 but we’ve had steady leadership from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau throughout. Trudeau has never downplayed the pandemic, or ridiculed those who wore masks, or withheld PPE from provinces that didn’t vote for him, or questioned the scientists.
The result is that, on a per capita basis, Canada has suffered only a fraction of the cases and a fraction of the deaths in what has been an American catastrophe. As Americans go to the polls Tuesday, the country is approaching 10 million cases and 250,000 deaths.
Had Obama presided over such wholly unnecessary carnage, he would have felt compelled to resign. Obama and Biden both possess one quality that Trump lacks completely – it’s the capacity for empathy, the ability to feel for others.
Trump has never adequately expressed his sorrow for the dead because he simply doesn’t care, any more than he cares about the supporters who turned out for his rallies (one of them in Nebraska) and then found themselves stranded in the cold and dark when no buses arrived to take them back to their cars.
It would be impossible to find a more apt metaphor for Trump’s America – the very people who back him with their hearts and minds and wallets left freezing in the cold, while he jets off to bask in more glory hundreds or thousands of miles away.
It has to end. America cannot even begin the critical work of healing, of halting the rape of the environment, making all citizens feel equal, saving Obamacare and taking an active part in countering climate change until this criminal regime is sent packing, until the rule of honour and decency is returned to American life.
The entire world is watching and holding its breath. Will the U.S. succeed in a peaceful political transition? Or will democracy die on this hill, murdered by a grifter and charlatan and reality TV “star”, a self-proclaimed billionaire who has paid $1500 in taxes in 15 years?
Please, my old friends – even those who stole my overshoes in 1956. Don’t be on the wrong side of history. If you can’t quite bring yourself to support Joe, then sit this one out. When it’s over, buy a case of beer, take it over to the neighbouring house with the Biden sign out front, sit down and enjoy a few amiable beers and talk football.
Democrats, see if the Trumper down the street would be interested in burgers and the Huskers game against Northwestern next Saturday.
It’s not much, but you have to start somewhere.