Last week was rough for the Empty Nesters, but more so for the country. For context, you should know that the nest has not actually been empty for the past two months. The Nesters have been hosting two field organizers for the Beto O’Rourke campaign. The unfortunate thing about writing that last sentence is that I probably lost about 50% of my potential audience. Because Beto is “them” and a fair number of my friends wonder how in the world I could let “them” into my house; heck, it actually proves their suspicion that I am one of “them.”
For most of the fall, that labeling was okay by me. Beto does not tick every policy box on my voter scorecard, but he hits the most important one hard: Beto is like me; an incorrigible optimist. He has taken care and exerted incredible effort to run a positive campaign (one snide debate reference aside) built on actual people. Not polls, not media buys, not fear mongering and not attack ads. He has the power of his convictions. For instance, Texas is not ready to vote for someone who endorses universal health care (for some reason we want some folks not to have health care?), yet he trumpets the message and explains why it needs to be done. I don’t know if single payor, universal health care is achievable or desirable. I do know I want elected officials who fight to make the world a better place. For everybody.
So I am all in on Beto. Jon and Ryan, our two field organizer guests, only amplified my enthusiasm. For slave wages, they work 70 hours a week (no exaggeration) knocking on doors, making phone calls and generally doing everything they can to make history. They are not high enough in the Beto food chain to be rewarded with D.C. jobs if he pulls off an electoral miracle; neither of them have book deals or MSNBC commentator slots lined up. They work farmer’s hours based solely on the belief that this country’s citizens can and will build a better, more just and more humane society. Naive or noble might both be appropriate adjectives, but “controlling socialist power mongers” does not apply.
So Monday afternoon, I cast my early vote for Beto and several other long shots who seem like they want tomorrow to be better; but a fair number of GOPers also received the benefit of my ballot. I carved time out of my schedule to vote, which was wise. McLennan County, like the rest of Texas, is seeing a historic rise in mid-term voting. Although facts and logic have fallen out of vogue, it is pretty obvious that Beto’s efforts (or more precisely, Jon’s and Ryan’s efforts on Beto’s behalf) have had something to do with increased voter participation. So walking away from the booth with my “I voted” sticker, I was more optimistic than usual. Beto might not win, but I could see the arc of history bending in the right direction from where I stood.
Then all hell broke loose. I know enough about electoral politics to understand that as the first Tuesday of November nears, passions rise to sometimes dangerous levels. My Facebook feed directly reflected that fact. Apparently, the country has replaced bumper sticker politics with “meme politics.” Also, Mark Zuckerberg presides over a kingdom of folks who have somehow synthesized the previously competing ideas of name calling and Christianity. Given that I am primarily a Democrat, I am—according to my Facebook “friends”— also a moron, a socialist, an enemy of the country and finally, the last straw from my brother-in-law, a Nazi. Because, don’t you know it, Democrats are the new Nazi’s.
Against my better judgment, I took the bait and engaged on a variety of threads. Each time, my argument was basically the same. We need to tone down the rhetoric and President Trump should take the lead in doing so. Each time the response was also basically the same. “While I do not endorse the President’s twitter feed, the abuse heaped on the man justifies his pugilistic use of the bully pulpit” or something to that effect. I cannot help myself. For the life of me, I do not understand why we should not expect this President to lead on this issue. Or if not lead, to at least not suck us deeper into the mud.
In separate incidents late this week, we saw the result of our overheated mindsets. On Wednesday in the now ironically named Jeffersontown Kentucky, Gregory Bush decided to kill black people because they were black. About the same time, Cesar Sayoc was at the post office trying to kill Democrats because they were Democrats. Worth noting: these attacks are becoming common. It was only two years ago that 49 people died in Orlando only because they were gay. And one year ago, Steve Scalise was shoot for the sin of being a Republican.
What made this week so horrific for me, however, was that our collective reaction included what until now had been a forbidden tangent. Right alongside our expressions of sorrow, outrage and prayer, we had the unvarnished cravenness to voice the question: “Who does this carnage help and hurt in the mid-term elections?” The President himself decried the potential bombings’ impact on GOP momentum; his allies tried to convince us that the bombings were a “false flag operation” to dampen any groundswell of Democratic voting.
It was a tipping point for me and my optimism. Mass violence by definition is insanity, but this week’s killings and attempts are of a different stripe. When a disturbed someone shoots up a school, a theater or a church for no apparent reason or because his (yes it always his, never hers) personal life has driven them crazy, I understand that maybe only God can explain it. But the reasoning behind this week’s attacks are no mystery. They are the work of madmen, but they are madmen set on a specific purpose: to kill the “others.” Of course, the “others” are going to alter their behavior either by retaliating or withdrawing. In a country of 325 million people, you will get some of both. Retaliation begets response and soon we are a nation of Hatfields and McCoys, feuding and killing for reasons we no longer can even remember. For the first time in a long time—as in my entire life—I wondered if the American experiment was destined to fail; whether we are just too selfish or immature to responsibly exercise our inalienable rights.
While the Kentucky shooting and the attempted bombings had already happened, I still had hopes for the weekend. Saturday morning M’Lissa, Kendall and I made the trip to Austin for the Texas Book Festival, an annual fall affair held on the grounds of the State Capitol that celebrates an Empty Nester core value, specifically that reading is good. Argue that concept with me at your own peril. As an aside, we have Laura Bush to thank for the book festival as it was her brainchild while she was First Lady (and honorary First Librarian) of Texas. Saturday was a brilliant Texas fall day; the turnout grows every year and I have to believe that the former First Lady is proud of what she brought us even if she would never show it. Put the 2019 Texas Book festival on your calendar right now.
My mood was ruined, however, when the first person of note I saw was a large man wearing a court jester’s hat and toting a poster proclaiming that Donald Trump was a child rapist. The President is many things, but this was a new line of thinking. Any delusions I had about the fact that my “side” was not wallowing in the muck quickly dissipated. And then, while listening to renowned presidential historian Michael Beschloss talk about his new book Presidents of War, I learned about the synagogue shooting.In Pittsburgh. Robert Bowers had decided to kill Jews because they were Jews. What had been deeply troubling took on the hue of an insanity most of us had hoped had been stamped out of the Western world. Rock bottom. (Well almost. The real rock bottom was when I learned the President’s immediate reaction was we all would be better off is if we just fortified our places of worship. Really?).
But don’t let anyone ever tell you men of letters do not practice a valuable trade. After Beschloss finished his able presentation I made a beeline to the Capitol Auditorium to hear H.W. Brands discuss his new offering, Heirs of the Founders. Professor Brands talked about Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster’s lifelong efforts to deal with the slavery question in the context of a nation bitterly divided on the issue. Without directly referencing and perhaps without even knowing about the events in Pittsburgh, both authors made the same comforting point. We may be divided today, but we have been much more divided before and survived. So by noon I had at least regained an intellectual blueprint for thinking that this too will pass.
We took a short break by dining at the El Chile Cafe on Manor St. just to the East of I-35. The meal boosted my political will to a more even playing field with my renewed academic confidence, because the Mexican food was outstanding. So I say this next part with all seriousness and based on the fact that immigration seems to be driving our current struggles. We are a better country because of the enchilada. And pizza, Irish stew, spring rolls, jambalaya and a thousand other dishes that came to us via immigrants. Our culture is the culture of immigrants; if you want to stop them from arriving, you also want to restrict yourself to hot dogs and french fries. Nothing wrong with a good dog, but a steady diet of them is no bueno.
The afternoon’s speaker was crime fiction star Walter Moseley who was not there to talk about politics, although his latest protagonist is a history professor. I got to sit on the floor of the Texas House and listen to Moseley talk about his craft. By the end, my sense of equilibrium had returned if not my usual sunniness about America. We wandered back to Capitol Rotunda and remarked on what a beautiful building it is. As stunning as the architecture may be, the design predates potty parity laws, so there was going to be a short wait for M’Lissa to ready herself for the ride back to Waco.
Just the other day I had a conversation about indelible moments. Other than family, personal and sporting events, my indelible moments were Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, Richard Nixon resigning, Ronald Reagan getting shot, Challenger exploding and the tragedy of 9/11. All events shared by the nation if not the world. On this melancholy Saturday afternoon waiting for my wife to pee, I added to my list something unique, an indelible moment revealed to only me.
The Capitol is gorgeous and grand, the rotunda being the piece de resistance. People were swarming all around, most taking pictures. A favorite spot is the exact center of the rotunda. I watched a Muslim family stand in a circle with their camera laying on the ground take a picture of their heads with the rotunda ceiling as the backdrop. As they moved off, an Indian family did the same. A young black woman with an Asian boyfriend took a selfie; a Hispanic boy and his mother posed on one side while a multi-generational African-American family stopped a passerby with the request to make sure they were all in the shot. Finally, a group of Asian children took center stage and waved to their dad several stories up, filling his personal digital photo album. I kid you not, in the space of five minutes the entire world circled through the Capitol Rotunda right in front of my eyes.
And they all seemed to be saying that “they” were “us”; that they want to be part of something bigger and grander than even the building. The photographs will show happy, smiling kids who dream of being a governor whose portrait will one day hang in this hall or maybe an astronaut like Scott Kelly who had spoken earlier that day. Perhaps an author, illustrator or teacher. Maybe a librarian who marries a president. Or the owner of a kick ass enchilada shop. But one thing was sure. None of “them” looked like they wanted anything but the best for “our” country.
Their optimism took me back to something Professor Brands said early that morning. In explaining his recent project, the professor noted that the new book was a sequel to an earlier work on Benjamin Franklin that had ended with Franklin’s summation of the Constitutional Convention. The founders conducted the convention in secret, but subject to intense scrutiny by interested citizens. On leaving the hall, Franklin confronted a woman who asked what form of government had been given them. Franklin responded: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin’s wisdom is eternal and wide-ranging. But on the subject of America, this response is his crown jewel. Franklin was telling her, me and us that the work of being a free country is never ending. A republican democracy is not meant to avoid debate or controversy; rather it exists as a way to resolve our disagreements. If we are not careful and vigilant, the form Franklin and his brethren laid will become brittle to the point of breaking. The good news is that despite last week’s tragedies and in spite of a lack of leadership that encourages the right type of vigilance, I saw with my own eyes that we have a surplus of citizens committed to keeping the republic.
Vote your conscience.
Argue the merits of your ideas, not the motivations of your opponent.
Turn off the talking heads.
On November 7th, remove the yard signs and keep the flag flying.
Good night and God bless.