Besides chastisement in front of the class, Alex wasn’t allowed to Go Out and Play, my fourth grade class’ term for recess. Drawing a mustache on the vice president was an act of disrespect; that the Groucho face drag appeared on a Reagan-Bush ’84 campaign poster turned the defilement into an act of treason as perfidious as Alger Hiss’. This happened before the school year ended. By late October and deep into fifth grade, I recoiled from the unanimity of opinion. Reagan, Reagan everywhere. Even in my small private non-denominational but wink-wink Catholic elementary school, everyone assumed he’d triumph over the dull, decent Walter Mondale, who in public appearances grinned like a man making a joke out of spilling wine on an expensive tablecloth; the question, as it was for the rest of the country, was the size of his margin of victory. I was the only student in a class of fourteen rooting for the doomed Mondale; how dishonorably would he lose was my only question, from which I took a cheerful, almost giddy satisfaction as I watched the election results with my parents and state after blessed state went blue for Reagan — blue, the color that network news used to distinguish the GOP then. The next morning, greeted by smug peers — a majority but amiably amoral — I sounded like Cobra Commander vowing he’d return and when he did he’d destroy G.I. Joe once and for all.
My first brush with politics, then, was the last time in which nothing deeper was at stake than crowd following. When the Iran-Contra hearings preempted my mom’s soaps during a Sanibel vacation almost three years later, I got a hint of how politics can have quotidian effects: no fact confirmed my parents’ conviction that Congress was wasting its time interrogating Oliver North, John Poindexter, etc than how the hearings disrupted life. My great aunt sported an OLLIE FOR PRESIDENT bumper sticker. There was a sense in which congressional libs were out to railroad this lieutenant colonel with his oleaginous patriotic appeals, nationalistic self-pity, impressive posture, and rude teeth. It was my introduction to sanctimony and the uses to which the suspect and his claque would put it when logic inevitably fails. North wasn’t a human embodiment of sanctimony so much as a paraffin monument to it, raised in a dusty DC intersection.
Boasting music that mocked the senescence of the era, the Poppy Bush Interzone was distinguished only by the Gulf War, taken seriously by great many people who had no children in the armed forces. A fabulously easy war around which to rally support, the effort to expel the forces of, to quote the malapropism-prone president’s locution, SAD-dam Hussein, took less time than a third academic quarter in high school. NO BLOOD FOR OIL, the placards said. SUPPORT THE TROOPS, the counter-protesters shouted back. Explaining that I could oppose the war but not the stalwart troops, my parents said it was payback for the experience of “thousands” of soldiers returning from the humiliating rice paddies and jungles of the Ho Chi Minh Trail who were “spit on” by “their own countrymen.” At sixteen I understood the slogan’s bad faith: it collapsed distinctions, appealed like Oliver North to a sentimentality that because it exempted human beings operated at a non-circumspect distance from pathos; for, in sum, what is sentimentality but the worship of supine, fungible ideas of behavior?
As I approached the 1992 presidential elections, those early lessons in the political utility of sentimentality and sanctimony wouldn’t prevent me from getting snookered myself. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion wrote. All it took was for the right person commanding my affection to wield the two S’s for the right causes. But Bill Clinton needed electing first. What Thomas Mann called in his massive largely unread tome Reflections of a Non-Political Man the disgust for dogmatism would hold increasing sway over me as the decade crept forward.
This is the first part in a series on which I hope to expand in coming weeks.