The Old Flame

Politics has always been an old flame of mine. You know, the type of girl who stole your heart when you were young and innocent and
probably a lot more vulnerable than you are these days. No matter how many times she broke your heart, you’d run into her at a bus stop or a restaurant and she’d take your breath away. And all would be forgiven and you’d fall hard again, just like the first time, just like the last time and just like the time before that.

Eventually though, as time passed, you’d arrive at the point where you decide you just can’t take it any more and you kind of freeze
up inside, vowing that you’ll never allow yourself to get hurt like that again. And the years go by, and more time passes and at some point you don’t even remember what love was like, and that’s a good thing, and you’re thankful to the gods for making that so.

The turmoil of the sixties, SDS, Civil Rights and the Anti-war Movement, all took a toll on me. There were times of exhuberance, soaring optimism and a belief that ordinary people could stop bloodshed, could stand up for one another, could make a difference in the world. And there were times of huddling in dark doorways amid violence and explosions and screams, and frigid marches and cold rain that soaked you to the bone and a world-weariness that seemed to especially overtake that part of me that was once good.

By the mid-seventies, I’d had it. Friends and acquaintances were in prison or dead, or just went home to take jobs or get married. Another Kennedy was dead. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. Some, like me, spent more time in bars, cursed the evil powers that were, and usually didn’t remember a whole lot in the morning.
Bitterness becomes a frequent companion the more you realize that you’ve been permanently jilted, and she isn’t coming back, and you find you’ve lost the part of you that would’ve ever gotten her to come back to begin with. Eventually, I guess, we all decide to move on with our lives, and we find ourselves living in the suburbs, getting into families, working jobs we never imagined and not really thinking too much about anything.

World events come and go, Presidents come and go, trends, fads, songs, entire seasons of television pass by unnoticed. As the years go by, I always vote, but the outcome never fazes me much one way or the other, and the various suburbs I live in come and go but nothing really changes much.

Until this year and this President.

Four years previous, I vote for Al Gore and he loses, and I don’t think too much about the winner, an inexperienced, smirking guy who is the newest occupant of the White House. I hope nothing bad happens on his watch, because I don’t think he can handle it, but that’s about it. Then 9/11 happens, and it blows my world apart as it rips apart the twin towers that used to be a part of my world when I lived in New York. The smirky president, Bush, initially falters, then impresses me with his bullhorn to the fire fighters standing at Ground Zero. I start feeling whole again, with my neighbors, with the new President, with everything American. It’s a good feeling.

But it’s a brief feeling. An uneasiness starts taking hold. As months go by, I start getting the feeling that we’re being conned, lied to. Instead of pressing in Afghanistan where we had the perpetrators nearly caught, We end up invading Iraq. My old Vietnam fears rise up, but I’m now, leery as I am, I’m still afraid of terrorists and suitcase nukes and I don’t say anything.

The war seems to go well initially. But as time passes, it seems to grind to a halt while the killing continues, but I still don’t say anything. A few critics raise their voices, but they are quickly squelched. Careers are ruined. A general fear seems to grip us all, me and my neighbors, and I’m not sure it’s terrorists we’re afraid of, or each other. I make small talk, I close up and walk quietly in the darkness.

Then I start noticing this strange funny little guy who thinks he’s going to run for President on the Democratic side, and he’s publicly against the war. I’m amazed at first, he’s so ridiculous, but I admire him for speaking up, for seeming to ignore the fear that surrounds us all. I don’t think he’ll win, of course….

…kind of like those early weird looking SDS people who were asking me to join them in stopping the Vietnam War. I thought they were crazy; if we ran out of Vietnam, the Communists would win, and they’d attack other countries, and pretty soon, all of SE Asia would be a sea of Red. But there’s something irresistible about them and I take a pamphlet. I go to a meeting; I go to another.

There’s something irresistible about Howard Dean, and like a train wreck, I can’t take my eyes off him. I’m not sure he’ll ever make it as President, but I find myself going to a couple of MoveOn meetings. I’m overly cautious, I don’t look people in the eyes at first. But at some point, I see that they don’t look a whole lot different from me or my neighbors. I notice a faint excitement in my step, I start watching political talk shows and reading up on the war and the economy and the different people who are running for President against Bush, the smirky President, and I remember how I didn’t think he could handle the really tough decisions. I run my litmus test against him and against his Democratic challengers. You know, the one where I try to imagine them in the Oval Office
during the Cuban Missle Crisis and see if I think they could rise to the occasion like John Kennedy did. A couple of the Democrats
pass that test, and eventually, even Howard Dean does. Bush doesn’t.

As the months pass, I barely realize it, but I’m becoming a political junkie. I check the blogs all day long and hit the cable talk shows at night. I start filling my head with positions and decisions and what this writer said and what that reporter did….I’m going to more meetings, I’m sending money in and I’m watching as the process starts settling on one challenger, John Kerry to take on the dangerously incompetent smirky President, Bush. I get emails asking me to volunteer for this and volunteer for that. Before I
know it, I’m calling volunteer canvassers in swing states for the Democratic Party. I make plans to visit one or two and get in on
some ground work. Then I’m providing technical support for MoveOn. I talk to precinct leaders in various states helping them with problems accessing the database of likely voters and streets in their precincts. It becomes part of my everyday ritual and I find myself getting caught up in the excitement and it looks like we’re winning. I press harder. I give it everything I’ve got and I lie awake at night wondering what will happen if we do or don’t win. I can’t imagine not winning. I speak to thousands of people on the ground in swing states. Something magical is happening, a force created by everyday people is rising up. We have power again, we can do it, we’re going to Win!!

And the polls all seem to confirm this, we’re rising in a mighty wave. We’re taking back our country. But then the whole thing crashes to pieces in front of my eyes. We crash against an even mightier brick wall of a highly organized Republican Party, willing to stop at nothing to hang onto power. I feel depression washing over me, I sit in my office stunned as John Kerry gives a moving concession speech from Faneuil Hall.

It’s raining lightly on the tarmac and in the darkness of the night an airplane slowly cranks up it’s port engine.
Ilsa stares into me through moist eyes, she wants to know “why my name, Richard?”
“Because you’re getting on that plane.”
“If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it.”
“Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”
“But, what about us?”
I can barely speak.
“We’ll always have Paris.”

I fire off an email to one of the main organizers at MoveOn. I tell her that this isn’t the end, it’s a new beginning and that I want to play a part from now on. Doing nothing is no longer an option.

As the plane drones in the distance, Capt. Renault and I stand on the tarmac.
“So, Rick, it appears that you may be a bit of a sentimentalist after all. It might be good if you were to get out of Casablanca for awhile.
“There’s a free french garrison over at Brazaville and that 10000 francs I owe you could pay part of our expenses.”

“Our expenses?”

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The rain has stopped as the two of us stroll down the runway. Louis gives me a light, and I can see a faint glimmer of the sun,
rising far off in the distance.