As President Obama’s second term slow-rolls to a close, the bright promise of his first inaugural address has faded. We as a nation are more divided than we were eight years ago, with a blow-hard reality TV star pulling one party to the right, and a self-proclaimed socialist pulling the other to the left.
William Henry Harrison: “A Whig, a Know-Nothing and an Anti-Mason walk into a bar . . .”
Even America’s comedians, who have been among the President’s most loyal supporters, have started to tell jokes about him. There’s an old saying in American politics, dating back to the days of President William Henry Harrison–old “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”; if you’ve lost the stand-up comics, you’ve lost America.
In retrospect, the decision to run for a second term must hang heavy on his head. When I was faced with a similar decision, I took the rode less traveled as suggested by Robert Frost, and opted not to run again. Believe me–it has made all the difference.
The year was 1961. I was, like Obama, a long shot to win the presidency of my fifth grade class at Sacred Heart School. Like him, I came from a mixed marriage; my dad was Catholic, but my mom was Protestant. No Protestant–and just one drop of Protestant blood was enough to stamp you with that stigma–had ever been class president in the school’s history.
Whig wet t-shirt contest
Like Obama, I came with sterling academic credentials that overrode my minority status, however. I was two-time winner of the Pettis County Spelling Bee. I had played the lead–Santa Claus–in the previous year’s fourth grade Christmas play (“A bravura performance”–My Little Messenger). My report card? Nothing be “E’s” for “Excellent” and “VG’s” for “Very Good.” And, like Obama, I had written an award-winning autobiography–”So Far, So Good.”
I surfed into office on a tide of anti-incumbent sentiment. Linda Glennon had been class president for four years, and what had she accomplished? Nothing. No monkey bars on the playground, no chocolate milk in the cafeteria. We were still eating fishsticks on Friday, fer Christ sake!
And so began a new day. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” I told a tearful little band of supporters on the front steps of the school. “I’m waiting for my mom,” said Carolyn Mitzel, the physically precocious brunette I had my eye on now that I possessed the ultimate aphrodisiac–power!
“Use in a sentence, please . . .”
“She’s waiting for you over by the church,” said Karen Spinorkle, the little snitch.
“See you later!” I called out to Carolyn as she ran away.
“Not if I see you first,” she yelled back. That was Carolyn–full of spunk, a ready smile, and a set of burgeoning breasts that even her frilly lace blouses couldn’t hide.
We set to work, me and my administration, promising to make the first 100 days of our administration the most productive in fifth grade history. Unfortunately, the presidency of a parochial school class is, as John Nance Gardner once said of the Vice Presidency of the United States, “not worth a warm bucket of spit,” but he used a word that would get you a rap across the knuckless and 150 lines on the blackboard after school.
You couldn’t call a meeting, but you presided over one when it was called by Mrs. Kennedy, our teacher and according to someone who claimed to know, a ninth cousin of President Kennedy, the first Catholic president. Nine degrees of separation between me and the Oval Office!
Gardner: “What I actually said was ‘piss.’”
You could volunteer to take names when Mrs. Kennedy left the room, but my political advisors told me that was too risky–let someone else take the heat. And so I graciously stepped aside and allowed Linda Glennon, brown-nosing Goody Two-Shoes that she was, to volunteer, thereby increasing her negatives for the next election cycle. She walked right into that one!
I’m not going to sit here and tell you my term in office was perfect–not by a long shot. There was malaise, as evidenced by a “passing out” cult of kids who would hold their breaths in the cloakroom while someone gave them a bear hug from behind, causing them to lose consciousness. There was a gang of wiseacre boys who defiled the sacrament of confirmation–the Catholic equivalent of the bar mitzvah–by choosing the silliest saint they could find, “Aloysius,” for the confirmation name that the bishop would announce when it was their turn to get their cheeks slapped.
There was even a financial/romantic scandal; I slipped a little something special into the valentine card I gave Carolyn Mitzel–and she promptly walked the length of the classroom to give it back to me! That’s the last time any woman ever turned down a present from me–maybe a dollar bill sent the wrong message.
Being class president means you are a target for every cutup in the class, and factions will inevitably be formed against you. I endured the sneers of the “tough boys,” Tommy Dickman, Bobby Waljack and Darrell Vinson, who were so alienated from student government that they heaped scorn on anyone who had the guts and the decency to run for class office. That’s what’s wrong with politics in America–everybody’s so cynical that even people who are hard-working, intelligent, good-looking, devout, trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, brave–and humble–like myself get discouraged.
But I reached out to them in a way that appealed to their better natures. “Bobby,” I said one day while Mrs. Kennedy was explaining long division, “would you show me how to flip the bird?”
He looked at me skeptically, as if I were a government informant setting a trap for him.
“You serious?” he asked.
“You bet I am,” I replied. “I’m tired of being a wimp.”
He looked over at Tommy and Darrell. They shrugged their shoulders as if to say “We don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
He turned to see where Mrs. Kennedy was, then back to me. “Okay, you peel back your pinky and your ring finger . . .”
“Hold them down with your thumb . . .”
“Then and only then do you fold down your pointer finger–like this!”
He showed me how, turning his hand this way and that, so that I got a full 360 degree perspective. “Got it?” he asked.
“I think so–let me try.” I did as he said–it wasn’t at all natural–and got a grip with my thumb on the first two fingers, then f-o-l-d-e-d the index finger down. The final two steps were for me what it must have been like as one Wright brother twirled the propeller so that the other could take flight–I’d done it! I did . . .
Just as I was exulting, from behind me came crashing down upon my hand a metal-edged ruler of the sort that would subsequently be outlawed by the Geneva Convention, but which was still in use in far-flung outposts of the Roman Catholic Church. I grabbed my hand and cried out in pain, loud enough so that every kid in class–including Carolyn Mitzel!–could hear me.
“I can’t believe you–you of all people, the Class President!–would engage in such juvenile and vulgar behavior. Go to the principal’s office!”
I got up to go, holding my middle finger, and walked the gauntlet between sniggering girls and boys, but as I looked back, I saw on the faces of Tommy, Bobby and Darrell–a strange, new-found respect. Linda Glennon glowered at me, but Carolyn looked at me through half-closed eyes, as if she now saw me in an entirely different light–an outlaw under the skin.
I got off with a wrist-slap–isn’t that always the way it is when a politician gets caught in the act while in office?–but still, I paid my debt to society. The criminal record may have hurt my numbers among Linda Glennon’s base, but they weren’t going to vote for me anyway. Polls taken as the school year wound down showed independent voters leaning my way, as long as I could do something about reducing the annual take during Lent from our candy money for forced “Mite Box” collections for the African missions.
When we got our final grades I’d been promoted to sixth grade while Tommy, Bobby and Darrell had been held back, Darrell for the second time. With any luck, he’d be driving a car by the time he reached eighth grade–think of the edge that would give him when it came time for the Junior High Sweetheart Dance!
I huddled with my circle of advisors as I tried to decide whether to run again. Tommy thought it was worth it–it would make me the equivalent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the school’s history books. Darrell said there was a kid coming up behind me–Lowell Van Dyne–who would give me a run for my money, but he was beatable; “He picks his nose,” Darrell said with a professional’s gimlet eye towards a challenger’s weak spot, “and eats it.”
“You gotta run,” Bobby said, almost pleading. “Remember–I taught you how to flip the bird.”
I looked at him, and I felt the way LBJ must have when he decided to bow out of the 1968 Democratic race.
“No guys,” I said. “I’ve heard great things about Sister Gabriella Marie,” the sixth grade teacher, “and besides–the love of my life graduated.”
“So you’re throwing it all away for Carolyn Mitzel and her bodacious knockers, huh,” Bobby said, bitterly disappointed.
“I’m afraid so guys,” I said with a lump in my throat. “It’s been great, but I gotta move on.”
“Best of luck,” Darrell said, and we all stood up and shook hands. It had hurt, but it was something I had to do–for me and for them.
But things are different for you, Mr. President. You’ve got to hang tough. Even though your “likeable enough” former Secretary of State can’t seem to buy a primary these days, you’ve got to, pace Yeats, make the center hold. Before America’s Coke-Pepsi two-party system splits into three, then four, with Bill Weld, a former Governor of Massachusetts signing on as the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential candidate. Think about that for a second: a freaking novelist just a heartbeat away from the Presidency!
It’s all crazy talk, but that’s the way it always is.
When Bernie and Trump are talking.