[sixties-l] The Year of Living Endlessly

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: 12/30/00

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    The Year of Living Endlessly
    Finally we were ushered into a victory celebration where gray-haired, 
    somber, expensively tailored
    Republicans murmured comradely remarks....
    By Larry Bensky
    Forty years ago: A chill New York November morning, despite bright sun 
    bouncing from the tall, red brick walls across the wide upper Manhattan 
    avenue, through the dirty bay window of the tiny, one-bedroom apartment I 
    shared with two other guys just out of college. The three of us rotated our 
    six-month shifts in the coveted narrow bedroom with its attendant sexual 
    privacy privilege, the other two crashing on the cot and couch in our 
    shabby living room, scheming our intimate liaisons for times when the 
    others were supposedly away. It's only safe to get out of bed a half hour 
    at least after the heat clangs its way to the third of four floors in the 
    narrow brownstone building. Up too early, you'd measure the seconds by your 
    breath steaming in the overnight air.
    But, today, cold be damned; it's election day! That sunny wall across the 
    street belongs to an armory; inside it is a polling place. A warm glow 
    suffuses the cold, dry sinuses, radiating from the fact that I'm finally 
    old enough to vote for the first time and today's the day I get to vote 
    against Richard Nixon!
    Yes, even on my Election Day One, it was not about voting for that year's 
    windbag phony, the designated scion of the insular, prejudiced, narrowly 
    materialist Kennedy clan. It was about voting against Nixon, that 
    ever-shifting, ever-discomforting, ever-ambitious, ever-grim purveyor of 
    the deadly, divisive anti-communist
    demonology which smothered social discussion, intellectual debate, and 
    communal development.  Kennedy's minions managed to steal that election for 
    him, one of the closest in history to that point,
    with classic vote count manipulations in boss-rotten Democratic Chicago and 
    parts of running mate Lyndon Johnson's Democratic Texas fiefdoms as well. 
    And, of course, Nixon, far from disappearing, lurked around politically, to 
    reappear and claim his presidency eight years later in plenty
    of time to continue the world-wide carnage Kennedy and Johnson had 
    escalated from Dwight
    Eisenhower, who, in turn, had received the tools of cataclysmic, 
    ideologically inescapable overt and covert conflict from Democrat Harry 
    I knew of this disillusioning bipartisan disgrace, of course; it was hardly 
    a secret at the time (and has been even better documented now, almost half 
    a century later). Nevertheless, I continued not only to vote, but to 
    organize others to vote.
    When it was time to cast my next presidential ballot, in 1964, it was as an 
    absentee, while I was living in near-homeless poverty in Paris. Crashing in 
    two-dollar-a-night hotels with single fifteen-watt light bulbs and no 
    visible means of heat in a dark northern European winter, I learned which 
    cafs were likely to have the best collection of the newspapers I couldn't 
    afford to buy. Between the lines of those papers one could read that the 
    man I was organizing and intending to vote for, Lyndon Johnson, was a vulgar,
    corrupt power junkie, whose pious rhetoric belied his miserable personal 
    and professional behavior,
    only occasionally leavened by some vestigial concern for human welfare. But 
    here again, it was time not to vote for LBJ, but against Republican Barry 
    Goldwater, known, however falsely, as avatar of humankind's direst 
    potential: nuclear war, environmental degradation, ethnic apartheid.
    By 1968, newly arrived in San Francisco with its intense menu of electoral 
    and non-electoral
    leftisms, after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and the milding out of 
    Eugene McCarthy, my
    choice was between Dick Gregory and Eldridge Cleaver (I chose Cleaver, who, 
    as the years evolved, arguably turned out to be as despicable an option as 
    Nixon or Goldwater would have been).
    The last Democrat on my electoral resum, and probably the last one who 
    will ever be inscribed
    thereupon, was George McGovern in 1972. Here, for once, I was not just 
    voting against someone
    (Nixon, redux, now having acquired the power, which he used fully, to turn 
    his heretofore
    rhetorical bellicosity into vast oceans of real blood and horror) but for a 
    man I had interviewed at
    length, and whose comportment I had observed close-up during the campaign. 
    (Nixon clobbered him, of course, with a vicious campaign that succeeded in 
    submerging McGovern's sensible, gentle humanism in a fog of 
    pseudo-patriotic blather and youth-bashing.)
    I had by then developed quite an obsession with electoralism, leavened with 
    a massive skepticism about its practitioners. In fact, that skepticism may 
    have dated back to an encounter that predated the casting of my first vote, 
    when I met the father and now grandfather of ex- and elect-Presidents Bush.
    It happened when I was a sophomore in college the very same college which 
    allowed both Bushes to glide through on their pedigrees and privileges but 
    which was, for a very unprivileged and certainly differently pedigreed 
    first-generation son of an immigrant family, a daily encounter with 
    all-male class-based isolation, confusing intellectual horizons (we didn't 
    read poetry, much less philosophy, in my high school) and political 
    "You fought like hell with me and just about everyone else in freshman 
    philosophy seminar," a
    Republican judge recalled at our 25th Yale reunion. "You thought human 
    equality was the
    highest ethical principle. We thought Plato and Aristotle, as we read them, 
    proved just about the opposite."
    If those indeed had been my thoughts, my visit to the Bush mansion in the 
    wealthy enclave of
    Greenwich, Connecticut on election night, 1956, would have tested them 
    sorely. Although I was,
    as life progressed, to experience other equally or even more elaborately 
    splendid dwellings, the Bush
    domain has always stuck in my mind. It was all polished wood and 
    chandeliers, with tastefully
    framed family portraits hung amid stern, representational New England 
    historical art. The
    furnishings consisted of what looked to be never-sat-in chairs and couches 
    poised upon never-trod-upon carpets.
    There we were, three reporters from local newspapers (there was no mobile 
    radio or TV
    broadcasting then) kept in a cold hallway for many minutes, before being 
    ushered into a victory celebration, where gray-haired, somber, slim, 
    expensively tailored Republicans were murmuring
    comradely remarks, interrupted by an occasional loud squeal of laughter 
    probably reflecting not so
    much a rare moment of wit as a recognizable surfacing of the alcoholism 
    which plagued (and plagues) their precincts.
    No one offered us anything to eat or drink, so we watched as the champagne 
    flowed and the finger
    food circulated, until Senator reelect Prescott Bush, a quintessentially 
    sculpted 62-year-old
    banker, his presence garbed in soft tweed and oxford cloth, deigned to 
    thank his followers for his
    crushing victory over a long-since-forgotten opponent. His remarks which 
    probably resembled
    remarks on such occasions made millions of times before and since failed to 
    make my notebook. But
    I did jot down and write in the next day's paper his wife's smiling 
    observation that "Greenwich did it for us. It always has the nicest little 
    Several of my classmates (two-thirds of our class were prep school guys, 
    mostly from Andover and
    Exeter and what my buddy Calvin Trillin, whose pedigree was similar to 
    mine, referred to as other
    "St. Grottlesex kind of places") threatened physical retribution for what 
    they perceived to be
    my ungenerous betrayal of Madame Bush's titter.
    But the scandal blew over.
    Not so my knowledge of the Bushes and their ilk.
    Although, as soon as college mercifully ended, I left anything approaching 
    their social orbit forever, I've experienced their socio-political toxicity 
    ever since. What I think about them, and it, is: these are not necessarily 
    unlikable people. If you happened to have a flat tire on their road, they 
    might use a cell phone to call you some help.
    On neutral grounds say the Senate dining room in Washington, they'll even 
    spend time explaining to you what they think, and why, or exchange stories 
    about their families and adventures.
    But when it comes to doing what they feel they've got to do, they will lie, 
    cheat, steal, and
    kill without so much as an introspective moment.
    Our next president, George W. Bush, is one of those guys. His Yale 
    fraternity, DKE (there were
    few fraternities at Yale, and men of intellectual consequence or academic 
    accomplishment rarely belonged to them) was a notoriously drunken gang of 
    jocks and jerks. On a daily basis, the campus newspaper which I eventually 
    edited was down the street, I walked past its landscaping with the previous 
    night's beer cans and the consequent contents of their members upchucked 
    It was all, of course, lawless; the drinking age was 21, and almost no one 
    had reached that age
    much before graduation. Equally lawless was the common practice of doing 
    each other's homework,
    writing each other's papers, taking each other's exams. But it happened. 
    All the time.
    It happened because it was allowed to happen.
    The myth of Yale (or of the United States) as a meritocracy was and is an 
    amusing inconsequence
    for the Bushes' ilk. Not for them experiences like, for example, mine, when 
    I ventured to Washington
    in search of my first post-college job, my carefully pasted scrapbook of 
    newspaper articles and
    columns under my arm. There was a supposed tradition that all the major 
    editors of the Yale
    Daily News would automatically be hired as cub reporters by the Washington 
    Star, a since-disappeared daily rival of the Post. I dutifully dropped off 
    my scrapbook the day before my interview with the editor in chief, one of 
    the old-boy Yale blue network. It seemed to go well (perhaps I was smart 
    enough not to include the Bush campaign night story). On my way out of the 
    building, I ran into a guy I'd known in college who already worked there. 
    We had a drink, then a couple more. Finally, he told me not to get my hopes 
    up. "Don't you read the bylines in this paper? They don't like to hire Jews 
    Yeah, that again! Not that I didn't know and believe then (and now) that 
    the Rosenbergs, had they been named, say, Johnson or McSweeney, wouldn't 
    have been executed. Not that I hadn't followed, with the same passion for 
    details that I normally saved for the Dodgers, the names, records, and 
    statistics of the Jews persecuted by Senator McCarthy. Not that I hadn't 
    been absorbing, all my reading life, and hadn't
    internalized in vivid, nightmarish detail, the Holocaust. Not that the 
    parents of the first girl I  ever loved hadn't forbade her from seeing me 
    because I was^.
    But still. George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, they don't share such 
    experiences. They impose them. Random acts of kindess? Sure, no problem.
    Have a beer. Take a ride on my sailboat. Even, maybe, these days, times do 
    change, albeit painfully slowly, marry my daughter. But don't get in the 
    way of my operating system. Or you'll pay the price.
    The lure of electoral politics is that it offers the possibility of 
    becoming an equalizer for all of the
    massive, humiliating, deadly state power that enables, generation after 
    generation, the Bushes
    of the world to keep their privileges. For my parents' generation, it 
    provided the beginnings of
    what is variously called a social safety net, or an entitlement. The 
    theoretical underpinnings are not
    complicated: if you're capable of working, you should be guaranteed health 
    and sustenance all
    your life. If you aren't capable of working, those who are capable pledge 
    to take care of you. The
    mechanisms by which working and non-working people are guaranteed 
    protection are designed and administered by an entity called a government. 
    That government responds to the will of the public, as expressed in elections.
    The often messy and infinitely manipulable practice of creating, through 
    elections, governments capable of imaginative, collective alternatives to 
    what the Bushes will continue to try to impose by birth-derived fiat 
    remains filled with fascinating, if chimerical, possibilities. Which is 
    why, if one wants to be optimistic, this year's messy electoral process has 
    been, or at least could be, a valuable one. Obviously this technologically 
    advanced society, which can tell you in a nanosecond how much money you can 
    take out of your bank account in Oakland while you're standing at an ATM in 
    Chicago, is capable of deriving a less-prone-to-error balloting process 
    than that endured in Florida. (Especially since the same companies that 
    make those ATMs stand to derive significant benefit from the manufacture 
    and maintenance of better vote-counting products.)
    But in addition to improving the counting of those Florida ballots that no 
    doubt would have made Al
    Gore president had Bush not been saved by his and his daddy's cronies on 
    the Supreme Court, it
    is time to raise other issues in addition to perfecting the vote-counting 
    machinery. Instant
    runoff voting, for example, would have allowed a democratically decisive 
    decision this time, by allocating Nader and Buchanan and other non-winning 
    candidates' votes to secondarily preferred candidates. Free TV time in (at 
    least) five-minute chunks would break through the stultifying merchandising 
    of brand-name political products through manipulative advertising. Same-day 
    registration might boost voter turnout.
    And, above all, full public financing of campaigns needs to be brought onto 
    the national agenda, as
    it has begun to be locally. The present, obscene escalation of corporate 
    and wealthy individual
    megabucks donations is more than ever out of control.
    Will any of this happen? Probably not, especially if the reaction to what's 
    just took place is further
    withdrawal by an already disaffected public (half those eligible continue 
    not to vote) from electoral politics. Certainly not, if people follow the 
    dreadful Al Gore in believing that when elections end, "the time for 
    politics is over." On the contrary, Al, the time for politics should just 
    be beginning. A politics, however, defined much differently from the soiled 
    and disgraced electoralism just concluded.

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