Political Memories

Here are some things I remember, from being an old person.

I remember the turnstiles in the Willie Horton ad, representative of Michael Dukakis’s commitment to releasing black rapists and murderers.

I remember the 1991 SNL skit, a fake ad against the Brady Amendment (requiring a seven-day waiting period for hand-guns), where Chris Rock and a masked accomplice rob a nice white family as they sit at home waiting for permission to buy a handgun to protect themselves. The masked accomplice ends up shooting Chris Farley, who collapses dramatically into the coffee table, and then Chris Rock says: “Nice shot WILLIE HORTON! Why’d you have to go and do that, WILLIE HORTON?”

I remember the New Yorker “Talk of the Town” when the first rumors of the Lewinsky scandal came out. One of Clinton’s aides was interviewed, not knowing whether the rumors were true or not, convinced (as was the case) that the Republicans, looking for one thing (Whitewater), had found something else (Lewinsky), but adding: “If you want to know who I blame, I blame Clinton. I blame him.”

I remember the conversation I had with my friend Loren McArthur when Florida was called for Gore.

“Gore’s really going to clean up the environment.”

“We won’t be allowed to drive anymore.”

“Or throw things out. Or go to the bathroom.”

“You can go to the bathroom, but you have to recycle it.”

“You’ll have to wear a contraption that captures your waste and recycles it.”

“Then you can eat that.”

“Yes, you’ll have to eat that. It’ll be this goop, which you’ll just recycle right up and eat.”

“Gore Goop.”

“Gore Goop. And you can put it in your car.”

I remember the smug blond Republican aides outside the Dade County courthouse, grinning and chanting and pretending they were a spontaneous mob. I remember James Baker flying down to Florida and lying, lying, lying. I remember Lars-Erik Nelson, the excellent political writer for the Daily News and New York Review of Books, dying in his apartment that month of a heart attack. I always assumed it was in front of the television, watching Baker.

It was the beginning of eight bad years.

Keith Gessen

I remember voting for Ross Perot. I remember listening to Bill Clinton on the radio in Park Slope in 1995 and thinking he sounded smarmy, condescending, and untrustworthy. I remember attending Ralph Nader’s huge rally in Madison Square Garden. I remember my most pressing political protests being for the preservation of the community gardens in the East Village and the Dance Liberation Front’s dance-off resistance parties in Times Square against the cabaret laws. I remember my anti-Giuliani pin (his face, circle with line through it), and making flirtatious eye-contact on the train with someone who had on a Giuliani Hitler-stache pin. Then I remember the 2000 election being stolen, and the hard decision to move from Green to Democrat for Dean. I remember canvassing for him in Canarsie with the Painters’ Local, talking to no less than five felons outside the C-Town who hadn’t voted in ten years or more. I remember the painter who took us to his lovely home, tried to feed us while we were supposed to be handing out fliers, how he was voting for Dean, sure, but he was saving up to move back to the Dominican Republic in five years. I remember still believing, despite all the evidence, that things would work out OK.

—Emily Votruba

My mother was a proponent of the first returnable bottle bill in Maine. I remember her putting me out in the parking lot at our local supermarket with bumper stickers and telling me to put them on people’s cars. What if they don’t want them, I asked, pretty sure this was sketchy.

They’ll just razor them off, said my mom.

After the bill was passed, we would go to the beach as a family and collect the returnables, and whatever we earned we could spend on candy at Len Libby’s, a local candy shop that is still there in Scarborough, ME.

My mom was a feminist, League of Women Voters, a prominent Republican who is now a Democrat–this summer she was a Hillary delegate. She remembers being at the Bush compound for a barbecue where she took Barbara Bush aside and asked her about the courting of the religious right, which she found disturbing. It’s just for the vote, she assured my mom. We don’t believe it. It’s just to get elected.

By then I was an AIDS activist with ACT UP. A few summers later, I would go to a die-in at the same place my mom had heard Barbara issue that assurance, protesting Bush 41’s lack of attention to the AIDS epidemic.

Since that die-in, millions of people all over the world have been infected. Millions are dead.

I thought of that this morning, as I filled in my ballot in Massachusetts, where I found the chance to vote on a nonbinding resolution that would say that healthcare was a basic human right in Massachusetts. I remembered wearing an ACT UP shirt that said HEALTHCARE IS A RIGHT, and people staring at me like I was insane.

AIDS patients were among the first to be ejected from their health insurance, the first to have companies decide they should die because it was too expensive to care for them, and because no one took a stand with them then, no one joined our little campaign, now so many people lack insurance that I read editorials in the Wall Street Journal about how health insurance has priced itself out of a market, and can’t earn much in profits in the future–not for stockholders, who require a level of growth that can’t happen per the current policies in place.

So I spelled my name five times, my four-letter last name, for people who were looking right at it, and then voted my straight Democratic ticket in my solid blue state–plus no on abolishing the income tax, yes on reducing punishment for marijuana possession, yes on banning greyhound racing. Yes on Healthcare Is A Right.

—Alexander Chee

The night Reagan was elected in 1980 I was lying in bed listening to the college radio station broadcasting from the slightly larger town next to my small hometown. Over the air the college students were holding what they called a moan-in, in which they collectively lamented Reagan’s imminent victory by wailing and gnashing their teeth. It was clear Reagan was ushering in a new era in this country, that it was going to be a time of great numbing stupidity, and that there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t vote, I was too young to go to anything like a moan-in, and, anyway, what would I have done? I could have gone into the field behind my house and moaned along with the cows grazing there, but I never liked those cows. I stayed inside instead and listened to the radio, hoping the moan-in would end so the disc jockey would go back to playing Echo and the Bunnymen. People think the trouble began in 2000 when the Republicans stole the election in Florida. Not true. It started with Reagan, and the Reagan era never really ended. Even after Reagan’s funeral it went on. The Clinton years happened in its shadow, and if it was casting a shadow it was still there. Bush II represented its absurd, ugly continuance and now represents its frazzled, bitter end, a tragedy for our country and the world. If Barack Obama wins today that era will finally, decisively be over, and maybe the moans of those students, who seemed so old to me at the time, so grown-up even though what they were doing was pointless, will no longer echo in my head in early November every four years. I want that idiotic moaning banished from my memory.

—A. S. Hamrah

You want old? I’ll give you old. I remember the 1984 presidential election. I was in the first grade and obsessed with astronauts, so I was really excited that John Glenn (who orbited Earth in the Friendship 7!) was going to run for president. My parents made fun of me for wanting an astronaut to be president. John Glenn didn’t get the nomination. Later, at recess, everyone was talking about whether their parents were going to vote for Reagan or Mondale, and I knew that my dad was going to vote for Mondale, but he was really gloomy about it. Everyone else’s parents were going to vote for Reagan.

I remember the Gary Hart scandal! I was ten. First I remember not understanding why it was important that Donna Rice had stayed at his house. So what if she stayed at his house? Then it turned out his yacht was called Monkey Business. I thought that was a stupid name for a yacht. That spring (I think in June), my parents rented a cottage on Kiawah Island in South Carolina and we were supposed to have a wonderful beach holiday, only instead there was some kind of a hurricane and we spent the entire week sitting in the cottage, listening to the radio and eating delicious Jolly Green Giant brand canned corn, which I had never had before (because canned corn is so high in sodium). Everyone on the radio kept saying that Gary Hart should have acknowledged his mistake and apologized to the American people. Also they kept playing the song by Chicago, “It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry.” I asked my mother as a joke if that song was about Gary Hart. Subsequently we called it the Gary Hart song. There was nothing to read in that cottage except a book about sailing by E. B. White or Roger Angell or someone. I read it like 19 times.

I hated Michael Dukakis because he looked just like my orthodontist, Dr. Terzis. My father, on the other hand, liked Dukakis but had an ideological opposition against all orthodontists (a point of contention with my mom. He said orthodontics were as dumb as preventative tonsillectomies and in the future people were going to laugh at us). He would always say, “Dr. Terzis looks nothing like Michael Dukakis.” He was wrong. But my Turkish cousins have often complimented me on my straight teeth, and it’s really thanks to Dr. Terzis.

—Elif Batuman

I remember my mother picking me up from school, early, in a taxi. Reagan had been shot. I got the day off. It was a fair trade. I remember being taken to vote with my mother, the view of everyone’s legs, the funny smell of the voting booth curtain, my father refusing to tell me who he’d voted for. It’s private, he said. 1980. Remembered these earlier today when I took my 4 year old to the polls with me. As we stood on line we played I Spy: “I spy with my little eye, lots of blue legs in pants that begin with the letter “j.” It’s true that everyone in my polling place seems to be wearing jeans. They’re also all white. I’ve recently switched Philadelphia districts, having moved two blocks north.Once we’re in, the poll worker tells me to make sure my daughter doesn’t push the button before I’ve finished entering all my choices on the machine. With every technology multiple new accidents occur. My mother let me pull the lever, but the lever wouldn’t move until all the dials had been turned. We express choice in the technology of our age. My daughter pushes the button in the end, when she’s supposed to, and my vote disappears without a trace or a clunk. As toys go, the machine is pretty disappointing. “Did you like it?” I ask. “Like magic,” she replies.

—Marco Roth

Eight years ago today I was sitting awake in a Guatemala City hotel room watching election results, filled with expectation. My wife and I had traveled from Cape Cod through George Bush Airport in Houston and now we were sitting (well, she was lying comfortably) on tenterhooks, waiting.

I could not conceive of an idiot like George Bush being President and I figured Gore would win. I didn’t think much of Gore the Environmental Nobelist–it wasn’t as if he’d had said much about global warming in the eight years of the Clinton soap opera. As far as I was concerned he was a St. Albans boy, too conservative and too self-righteous. In any case, Gore & Bush looked like Coke and Pepsi in the debates. I had been a reproductive rights voter in college for selfish reasons, but that seemed not to matter so much any more. So Bush will outlaw abortion, not my problem.

It was getting late and they called Florida for Gore, so I offed the tv and turned in. We awoke to chaos on the television news. Not only hadn’t Gore won Florida, no one seemed to think we’d have a president before the weekend. My wife had a passing thought that somehow our passports would no longer be valid.

Shortly afterward two attorneys arrived with Ana Maria Coc, a four-month-old baby with a ribbon in her buzzed hair and her best dress on. We exchanged pleasantries and then they left. Ana Maria (Molly) stayed. She lay on the bed, smiled, and flung her pacifier across the room. “She seems functional,” I said, and we began parenting. The long wait was over.

—Daniel Albert

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