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03-30-01: California Dreamin' or how learned to stop worrying and love
George W. Bush
By Jerri Pries
PEPPERELL, MA, March 28, 2001-Recently, I learned of the deaths of two
people. One, a once-prominent pop icon, was widely reported in the major
media. The other, someone well known only to family and friends, merited
an obituary of just 10 lines in his local paper.
The pop icon was John Phillips who died on March 18 of a heart attack at
the age of 65. In the mid-60s he formed the Mamas and Papas, one of the
quintessential groups of the Decade of Love. For nearly three years the
Mamas and Papas were a frenzied whirl of creative and commercial success
fueled by the free love, even freer drug use, and wild jealousies that
continually threatened to tear the group apart. Along with bands like the
Jefferson Airplane, they symbolized 60s California: youthful, free,
beautiful, obnoxious, tolerant, intolerant, obsessive, creative, addicted,
optimistic, defiant, loud, sensitive, abrasive.
Like much of the progressive counterculture of the 60s, the Mamas and
Papas burned themselves out in a passionate embrace so intense that it
could not possibly endure. Continually high on LSD, their creative spark
dwindled. John, unable to deal with the ongoing sexual relationship
between Michelle and Denny, got lost in a heroin haze of staggering
proportions into which he eventually dragged other family members.
Most of what I heard of Phillips over the last two decades concerned his
on-going struggle with sobriety. While there are many other equally
appropriate candidates, Phillips could easily qualify as the poster child
for what cultural conservatives felt was wrong with America in the 60s,
and remains wrong today.
Shortly after hearing of Phillips' death I read in my alumni newspaper
that one of my college friends died last July at the age of 51. Like me,
he was fatherless. Unlike me, whose father was barely a part of living
memory let alone an influential part of his life, his father died only a
few years before I met him and this fact was central to who he was. We
occasionally talked about this during our Sunday morning 'church
meetings'-sitting around the kitchen table finishing off left-over beer
and wine, talking, laughing, and arguing about everything and nothing-and
it was an important link between us.
As close as our college friendship was, we both quickly fell into real
life after graduation. Vietnam figures prominently in my memory of what
real life meant in those times: finding a scarce teaching job to keep a
deferment; surviving my year in the draft lottery; and shepherding my
wounded Vietnam vet brother back into civilized society. For any number of
reasons, our paths diverged and for almost three decades we were out of
>From the brief newspaper announcements of his death and other sources,
I've pieced together the basic outline of the life he lived since we went
our separate ways. He married his college girlfriend a year after
graduation and settled in a suburban area near her hometown. They had
three children; the oldest married with two children of her own. He became
an avid outdoorsman and eventually a buyer for a hunting supplies company.
She is an elementary school teacher. They became evangelical Christians.
Their oldest son recently graduated from an evangelical Christian college
and accepted a position as an elementary school teacher one month before
his father's death.
Apparently he lived a fine, middle-class American life: a long marriage;
healthy children; grandchildren; a job in a field he found interesting;
faith; community. If there were troubles-and I'm sure that like the rest
of us he had his fair share-there's no trace of it on the surface record
except, of course, that he died at 51. From the looks of things, his life
was that which the cultural conservatives would have us all lead.
Now I didn't vote for George W. Bush and bet that John Phillips-assuming
he voted at all-didn't either. I don't expect the current administration
will have me or my interests at heart and I worry about all of the
disappointments the next four years are likely bring.
But my friend, who was more conservative than I, even back in the 60s,
appears to have been a likely candidate to vote for Bush. (I have a
photograph of us taken in 1968 which shows him as a cocky, short-haired,
19-year-old wearing clothes that would be equally at home in the 50s.) I
can't imagine John Phillips being offended by the 'Clinton Scandals'-I
found the hypocrisy of the Republican opposition repugnant-but I imagine
that my friend was deeply offended by them and would have found comfort in
the prospect of George W. Bush restoring a new 'moral tone' to the
presidency. I'm sure that he also would have agreed with Bush's positions
on gun control and a variety of other issues.
It seems, at least on the surface, that if there is an American whose
interests the Bush administration would seek to defend it would be someone
like him. Without the support he received from cultural conservatives
across the country, Bush would not be president today. Clearly the
appointment of John Ashcroft as attorney general and several
administration actions limiting the use of government funds for pro-choice
activities are some of the rewards for this support and, while I can't be
certain, I imagine my friend would be in full agreement with these
But I'm equally sure that even he would have felt abandoned by some
actions taken by the Bush administration during its first 60 days. My
friend died in his local hospital and I hope that the medical bills
associated with his death are manageable, because the new bankruptcy bill
Bush signed into law increases the likelihood that middle class families
unable to deal with emergency medical bills will be pushed into personal
bankruptcy. He lived in an area where ground water suffers from heavy
pollution generated by the steel industry, so I hope that the water supply
for his Pennsylvania home-the water his family still uses-isn't
contaminated with arsenic, which the Bush administration recently decided
isn't really a problem. He is survived by his mother who is in her 70s,
about the same age as my own mother. I hope she is in good health, because
while the Bush administration focuses its energies on delivering a huge
tax cut for the wealthy and even bigger dividends to the petroleum
industry, the debate on providing affordable prescription drug services
for the elderly has been assigned a seat at the back of the bus.
Like the 60s, these are serious, serious times. On a wide variety of
fronts, the Bush administration threatens to undo much of the hard-won
progress of the past three decades. They use 'crisis language' to get to
us to focus our attention on how we are going to deal with a variety of
impending personal problems: economic security in a faltering economy; the
increasing price of gas or fuel oil; and heightened world tensions. While
we're pre-occupied by these fundamental concerns, they can more freely
pursue other administration objectives.
Opposition responses to the Bush onslaught have been, as they should,
openly hostile. In our fury, however, we run the risk of becoming like Mr.
Jones, the coal miner who lived across the street from me while I was
growing up. Angry that the mines had closed and insecure about his future,
Mr. Jones chose to sit on his front porch spitting angry words at anyone
silly enough to walk by on either side of the street. Two trips past his
house and you knew exactly he what he was angry about but you didn't want
to hear it anymore.
As Phil Ochs once said, "A demonstration should turn you on, not turn you
off." (An idea that is apparently totally lost on many WTO protesters who,
I guess, can't be totally at fault since their ideological leader is the
almost humorless Ralph Nader!) During the 60s this meant satirical,
theatrical protests like Abbie Hoffman who, in protest against the
financial markets, threw $200 in one dollar bills onto the floor of the
New York Stock Exchange so he could watch the traders stop working their
million-dollar deals and scramble for 'real' money . . .
and Allen Cohen who petitioned to conduct a ceremonial lifting of the
Pentagon 100 feet into the air and subsequently announced that
negotiations with Pentagon officials would limit the lifting to 3 feet . .
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