Why I’m voting for Obama: part 2

free stats

In the middle of the Carter presidency, for reasons unrelated to national politics, my mother died and my family was bankrupted. I was sixteen, and almost overnight I went from living in a middle-class suburban household to living in my car, a 1971 Vega that was a hand-me-down from my brother. I ended up in a trailer in southern Illinois, starving and broke, and stayed there for five years.

As one of my readers noted the other day, I had led a sheltered, isolated childhood in my middle-class suburb, where they simultaneously preached racial equality while seeing to it that I might never have to meet anyone of another race.  In contrast, my trailer park in southern Illinois was in the bad part of town, where burned-out and ne’er-do-well white college students lived beside poor blacks. I was scraping by from month to month, allowing myself one twenty-five-cent can of generic spaghetti per day for food, and suddenly the lives of the students I moved among seemed absurdly privileged and decadent. Like Joni Mitchell, I’d looked at life from both sides now, or the American Dream anyway. I’d seen that the image of the happy family, the house in the suburbs, the kids, the yard and the station-wagon, that was all just a veneer, as delicate and insubstantial as a Christmas ornament, and as easily broken.

(For what it’s worth, I have twice been the victim of racial discrimination. When I was fifteen, I was fired from my job as a busboy, because the Mafioso owners of the restaurant, as a cost-cutting measure, decided to, literally, bus in illegal immigrants from Chicago to do my job. Then, when in my thirties, I was told by more than one prestigious New York theater that they could not produce my plays because I was not a minority. And yet, in spite of these bitter, bitter defeats, I never took my eyes off the prize, and nothing ever held me back from pursuing my lifelong dream of one day writing a cartoon about talking ants.)

I am an artist, and I found that the art I responded to most strongly in my teens was populist and sentimental. I thought Frank Capra was a genius, I thought Steven Spielberg was a godsend, and I thought Norman Rockwell was better than Rembrandt. (I still greatly enjoy Capra, and I still think Spielberg is pretty great, but I find I can no longer abide Rockwell.)

I was a sentimentalist from my time as a suburbanite, but my tenure as an indigent gave me a cynical streak as well. (An actress once described my work as "crunchy on the outside, but squishy on the inside," which I count as one of the best reviews I’ve ever received.) I loved the Beatles first, but I loved the Stones second, and while everyone I knew was listening to Boston and Journey, I was listening to Elvis Costello and Talking Heads. It’s no wonder, then, that my favorite author at the time was Kurt Vonnegut, who was the perfect blend of dewy-eyed liberal and coal-black cynic. When Vonnegut wrote “Goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind,” I took him at his word. Either all people are created equal or they are not, and if they are created equal, then I felt that they all have value and should be treated that way.That’s what I had been taught in my suburban enclave anyway, and that’s what I had been taught by Meet John Doe and E.T. and Jailbird. Vonnegut admitted in his preface to Jailbird that his entire output could boiled down to seven words: “Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail,” and he also passed along to me the words of his son Mark, who, when asked what is the meaning of life, said “The meaning of life is to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” And those two statements seemed to me to be an apt philosophy to get me through this thing, whatever it is.

1980 came around, the first election in which I was able to vote. I didn’t think Carter had done a very good job as a president, and I was frankly appalled at the notion of a washed-up B-movie actor attaining the highest office in the land, so I registered myself as an independent, which I thought was a very cool thing to do, and I threw my support behind John Anderson. I don’t know if I could tell you now what Anderson’s policies were, but he seemed authentic to me, he seemed to care about people, and he seemed trustworthy. And he, like me, seemed to have lost faith in America’s two-party system. I was nineteen, and I thought that Anderson might actually have a shot at the thing.

Well, that didn’t happen, and Reagan became president, and is now universally admired as a “great communicator” who won the Cold War and single-handedly dismantled the Berlin Wall.

But Reagan didn’t seem like that to me. Reagan seemed like an empty suit, an actor, really, no offense meant to my actor friends, genial but stupid, his crinkly smiles masking a stone-cold heart. I thought for sure that the country couldn’t possibly fall for his sparkly bullshit about it being “Morning in America,” I’d been near the bottom of the national food chain for years and it wasn’t anywhere near morning where I lived. When Reagan was elected in 1980 I felt like we entered a long, dark national nightmare. His empty rhetoric and repellent gaffes showed me that he was just a figurehead, a doddering fool who was controlled by someone else, someone behind the scenes, a feeling I’ve gotten from Republican presidents ever since. Say what you want about Nixon, one never got the feeling he took orders from anyone.

Reagan announced his ground-breaking economic policies in that “I’d never hurt you” sing-song old-geezer voice of his, and became the template of the Great GOP Daddy – treat the populace as children and they will see you as a father; abuse them and they will see it as love. Ronald Reagan didn’t see all American citizens as equal – he saw all wealthy people as equal, and the rest of us as cannon fodder. Who benefited from Reagan’s economics? He kept patting us all on the heads and assuring us that the money would trickle down to us, but where I lived the money somehow never showed up. Instead, social service programs were cut all over the place, homeless people proliferated on the streets and Gordon Gekko ruled Wall Street. I knew nothing of conservatism, all I knew was that Reagan’s vision of equality meant, quite literally, taking from the poor and giving to the rich.

Reagan’s bellicose war-mongering intensified the cold war to the point where, in 1982, it seemed certain that nuclear war was just around the corner. Worse, he built up the military by reinstating the draft, and I was required to register for it, upon penalty of law. Living in difficult circumstances in the shadow of a mushroom cloud was bad enough, but now Reagan wanted to kill me. Fight a war? For that clown? I tried to apply for Conscientious Objector status and sought out all the necessary forms, but they all demanded that I be religious (I am not) or have some long-standing, well-documented moral objection to war. Well, I was a teenaged kid living in a trailer, what kind of documentation could I have pertaining to my moral objection to war? There was no box on the forms that said “I hate our president and will not fight or die for any war that he starts.”

That Reagan was elected once was, for me, a nightmare, but the idea that he might be elected a second time was unthinkable. I didn’t care that Walter Mondale was an ill-defined, watery, non-descript Democrat, I was going to vote for him and I assumed that everyone else in the country felt the same way. To my horror, Reagan was re-elected, by a huge majority, by smiling, smug Reaganites. I quite literally did not recognize the country I was living in any more – this America was mean, selfish and bullying. This America didn’t watch out for the little guy, this America ran the little guy down in its Mercedes, then rifled his pockets for spare change. I was living in New York by the time 1984 rolled around, and the streets were filled with crazy people who had been turned out of mental wards, and homeless people who had fallen through the societal safety net, and crack dealers who had found a way to prosper in a society with no other chances.

(Mario Cuomo, on the other hand, was a candidate I liked immediately, and whom, it was said at the time, could not be elected president because his name ends in a vowel – meaning that, since he is an Italian-American, the voters would not be able to think of his as “presidential.”)

Michael Dukakis, like Walter Mondale, was not my idea of a good candidate. I find it hard to believe he was anybody’s idea of a good candidate. All I knew was that it was important to stop Bush I from becoming president. And yet, in 1984 I was still registered as an Independent. Why? Because as much as I found George Bush I repellant, fake and cruel, I still hadn’t seen a Democratic candidate who I could look at and say “Hey, this guy thinks like I do, sees the world the way I do, will fight to make America the place I think it ought to be, I’ll gladly stand beside him and give him my vote.” Not a single candidate shared my worldview, none of them ever spoke to Republican power in the voice I heard inside my head, every one was a compromise, some kind of stop-gap measure, someone who would “do” until a real candidate came along.

And so I watched in horror, again, on another election night as a man named Bush – Bush! – became president and assumed the job of administering Reagan’s third term. Bush I, while clearly “smarter” than Reagan (and benefiting from not being senile), was far worse to me. I didn’t buy for a second his war in Kuwait, his “line in the sand,” a war I felt was fought simply because Bush had a problem with being perceived as a “wimp.” (Remember the “wimp factor?” Sheesh.) Bush I was like the paperback version of Reagan, a politician found at the bottom of the Reagan Remainder Bin.

As I hacked my way through the tangled undergrowth of the New York theater world, trying to eke out a career for myself as a playwright, Bush I tried to take even that away from me, using a bullshit cultural battle surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe and 2-Live Crew (remember 2-Live Crew?) to slash funding for the NEA. Bush I declared artists to be enemies of the state – it seemed like no matter what I did, there was always some Republican politician or other standing in my way.

And yet, when 1992 rolled around I was still an Independent. I thought that Bush I was a massive failure as a president, but I found Clinton to be a noxious, unappealing used-car salesman of a politician. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have in my possession an autographed photo of a young, dark-haired Bill Clinton in a meeting with my grandfather, who was, apparently, a figure of some standing in Arkansas politics.) I searched in vain for something, anything to like about him, and the only thing I could find to recommend him was that he was, like me, a fan of Elvis Presley. That’s a painfully thin reed to hang a vote on, but, as they say on the political blogs, I held my nose and voted for him.

By the time 1996 came around, I was a reasonably successful playwright and a part-time screenwriter. Just as I cannot fairly blame Carter for my family’s dissolution, I cannot fairly credit Clinton for my relative success. And while I still didn’t like Clinton that much as a person, or as a president for that matter, I couldn’t disagree with the economy that flourished under his reign.

(And, since it’s doubtful there will ever be a more appropriate place on my blog to mention this, let me just say that I couldn’t help notice that, as long as Clinton was getting serviced by interns in the oval office, the nation remained at peace, but the moment the blowjobs ceased, we were at war again.)

The strange thing was that I remained skeptical of Clinton right up to the point where the Republicans tried to remove him from office. Once the Ken Starr witch hunt began, I becameintensely partisan, and by the time the Clinton presidency came to an end, I found I had much to admire in him.

Next: Katrina brings it all into focus.


23 Responses to “Why I’m voting for Obama: part 2”
  1. jbacardi says:

    You, sir, summed up my feelings exactly about Reagan and Bush Sr. It was almost as if, a couple times there, I thought I was reading my own thoughts (written better, of course!).

    I’d say Nixon was the reason we’ve had three “handled” Republican presidents; when he crashed and burned, the shadowy figures said “we must never let that happen again”…

  2. capthek says:

    agree 100%.

    FYI, the main guy in 2livecrew has his own reality show now about raising his teenage kids. I think its on VH1.

  3. malsperanza says:

    It’s a sad fact that the Dems have managed to field quite a string of uninspiring lackluster hacks over the years. I’ve spent most of my voting life pulling the lever against the worser candidate (though I liked Carter and Gore a lot, and still do). Voting against the badguy has never bothered me; voting is a practical decision.

    A word on Norman Rockwell, because I’m interested in the way his imagery functions in American mythmaking. Rockwell is widely assumed to have been an arch-conservative because his style is ultra-traditional and his themes are folksy Americana–which was long ago claimed and appropriated by the Sarah Palins. As such, the glorification of happy American families at Thanksgiving, hurt puppies at the vet, and nervous, pimply teens at the malt shoppe reads to us as rightwing propaganda and bad art.

    Rockwell was a lifelong Roosevelt progressive. At a time when more avant-garde artists were breaking aesthetic rules and declaring their rejection of conservative style, not one of them made art that spoke to political realities. Certainly none who had Rockwell’s bully pulpit and ability to talk directly to middle America. Rockwell didn’t have anything to lose by taking a political stand in the 190s–he was far too beloved; but he also had nothing to gain. Yet he painted these two (and other) works, not retrospectively (when it would have been safe), but in the moment:

    Southern Justice (1964) http://www.ciaccess.com/~toveza/rockwell/southernjustice.jpg

    The Problem We All Live With (1965)

    These may not be great works of art–personally, I always avoid the tiresome debate about whether “illustration” is serious art or not. But they are very interesting, both rhetorically and culturally, and not the simplistic pap usually associated with Rockwell’s name.

    David Brooks, extolling Palin in the NY Times the other day, made the same assumption: “It took her about 15 seconds to define her persona — the straight-talking mom from regular America — and it was immediately clear that the night would be filled with tales of soccer moms, hockey moms, Joe Sixpacks, main-streeters, ‘you betchas’ and ‘darn rights.’ Somewhere in heaven Norman Rockwell is smiling.”

    More likely he’s puking.

    In the 1970s I heard Frank Capra give a talk, introducing a series of his 1930s films. His speech was a startling, rabid rightwing rant, and I’ve always wondered if his populism shifted from left to right over the course of his life (as Reagan’s did, albeit early on), or if, for him, the populist hero-story was always one of cloth-coat independence and hostility to government. The films don’t seem to bear that out, but they’re complicated, to say the least.

  4. I recall that in 1980, my first presidential election to vote in, I supported and voted for Anderson as well. What really bothered me though during that election was just how many of my peers gleefully and joyfully supported and voted for Reagan!!!! And I was in Art School at the time!

    I couldn’t understand how anyone could be fooled by Reagan’s BS. His job, for most of his life was that of an actor, a profession who’s main aim was to convince people that they aren’t who they seem to be. How naive I must have been in those days to think that others actually put thought into decisions on elections like I did.

    I was born and raised in an area of the country that Reagan and his conservative ilk gladly ignored. Part of the so called rust belt that in the early 80’s found jobs extremely hard to come by.

    I recently realized that in my entire adult life, that all the times where I’ve been out of work, there was a Republican in office.

  5. quitwriting says:

    I was just a baby when Reagan took office, so I grew up in this world that he created. I’d never seen a time before him that made me think his world was so bad. But I do recall in 1996 when my parents both decided to pull the lever for Clinton. After being life-long Republicans, they both stopped and thought about it and realized that Bob Dole didn’t give a shit about anyone but Bob Dole. And that Clinton was going to do better than anyone that had come before him.

    I still remember my father standing there, saying “You know I just can’t vote for Dole. It’s got to be Clinton.”

  6. mattyoung says:

    This was… quite an article. And only part two.

    Thanks for sharing all this with us. I appreciate getting your worldview from that time, since I wasn’t quite old enough to acknowledge much about Reagan when he was President aside from annoyance that he’d come on the TV and interrupt “Knight Rider.”

    Many people here have nailed what seems to be the overriding theme of elections since Reagan’s time: right-wing bully vs. lesser evil. My girlfriend and some many of our friends look at Clinton as an ideal (well, not exactly ideal, but positive and effective) president for the economy and peace under his administration, and it’s been most interesting, in this election, to see the uglier side of Clinton triangulation and manipulation come to light (from avenues other than Fox News).

    Obama may represent a candidate who isn’t a lesser evil but may potentially be an actual better option.

    This is why the commercials for Oliver Stone’s “W” film seem so zeitgeisty, in a strange way. We’ve been living an insane carnival-reflection of the “real” world (or, it seems more accurate if more frightening to say, the world Reagan built) since 2000 fired off the Bush administration with jeers of derision and confusion. The 90s were when we thought we understood how deep the rabbit hole went. It turns out we had no idea. Probably still don’t.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Wow. Ditto what the person said about reading my own thoughts but with better writing.

    There are some differences. Though I’m only a year older than you, I experienced a much later “awakening” to what might be considered serious thought about these sorts of things — and a couple of my electoral choices were slightly different, though the reasoning behind them was similar to yours.

    You and I do have a couple things in common, namely residing in the same towns in IL during the same time period. I lived in Crystal Lake from 1970ish until 1978 and in Carbondale from 1978 until 1985. I knew you in high school, but was completely unaware of where you were or what you were doing until I heard a radio spot for a PBS show about the 80s – or was it the 90s? Anyway, I tuned in to watch the show and have periodically checked up on your career via the internet since. I don’t remember when I found your livejournal blog, but I do read it — sometimes. My interests don’t include film, truly, and I have a very short attention span, so I usually skim through those entries – but am always impressed with how well you write and more importantly, how well you are able to express yourself. It does help to be good at whatever you choose to do for a living, doesn’t it?

    Today, I looked in because I wanted to read what you wrote about the newer 3:10 to Yuma, which I viewed in HD on Saturday, along with my 21 year old son (Sam), two of his buddies, my 50+ yo hubby, and my 80 yo mother. While I was visiting your site, I opened the recent entries and read every word of Parts I and II of why you are voting for Obama. I am looking forward to reading Part III — and will come back to look for it.

  8. notthebuddha says:

    Pretty nice essay, except that Reagan never drafted anyone. Selective Service began in 1980 under Carter, but the last US draftees were selected in December 1972 or so.

    • Todd says:

      That didn’t stop me from worrying about it for eight years.

      • notthebuddha says:

        If you mean you thought at the time that there was a draft, I sympathize; I didn’t expect to live long enough to become draft age. I brought it up because I’d hate to see your other points dismissed over their association with that kind of factual mistake.

        • Todd says:

          What I mean is that one day I was not required to register for the draft, the next day I was — my life was no longer my own to do with as I pleased, it belonged to the government to use as they dictated.

  9. ndgmtlcd says:

    That’s the point when I thought that the US as a whole had gone mad with greed, when the federal and state governments dumped mental patients out in the streets.

  10. Out of curiosity: why do you consider yourself victimized by racial discrimination when you lost your job to illegal immigrants?

    • Todd says:

      Well, I’m half-joking, in both cases. For the busboy job, I lost a job that paid me $2 an hour to a Mexican who would do it for $1 an hour — and had no choice in the matter. Race, I suppose, didn’t really enter into the question, only economics (and the legal status of my competition). In the case of the New York theaters, race was explicitly an issue, and while it was a bummer to not be produced at those institutions due to the color of my skin, there were plenty of other options open to me — like, say, writing screenplays for actual money.

      • Right. Yeah, I was just wondering if there was a way of framing it that I wasn’t seeing, since race is certainly tied up in a lot of similar economic situations in definite ways.

  11. megazver says:

    Oh, if only every president had an Official Presidential Fluffer or ten, what a world we’d live in.

  12. musicpsych says:

    I find it so interesting to hear/read critical opinions of Reagan and Bush I from people who were consciously aware of what was going on while they were in power. (I was born in ’82, and my parents are both Republicans. All I remember about Bush I are the Gulf War and the “Read my lips” line.) I’ve intended to read into it on my own, but I haven’t gotten around to it…

  13. chatoyant_1 says:

    Great continuation in your series.

    Ronald had Nancy Reagan as well, who can forget her contributions…

    Living in D.C. and working in restaurants at the time of Carter and some of Reagan (before moving to NYC) I recall the mostly sleepy, average d.c. cityscape started to take on an active character, certainly the streets, like with masked anti-Shah protestors, the more obvious changing demographic of “chocolate city” D.C., and from my vantage point, the ritual of Immigration officials raiding the restaurants or bars for “illegals” (the backbone of the place really, who managed to always get tipped off or return.)

  14. noskilz says:

    Part 2, also nifty – although the it is probably very wrong of me to have hoped the threat might have involved a curbcrawling Edwin Meese being too intent on doing research for his notorious report to pay heed to pedestrians or crosswalks.

  15. Not sure how many of you watch PBS but their excellent series “American Experience” has been covering a US President each week. They run about three hours each and are really well done.
    This week covered Nixon while next week is L.B.J. (don’t know why they’re not running them in order).

    Here’s their site: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/index.html