Anger Trumps Everything

I wake up most mornings in a decent mood, but things often go downhill within minutes.  Despite having retired from the Federal government over five years ago, I still get my wake-up call from Federal News Radio. Sometimes it’s nice to snuggle in bed and listen to reports of office struggles and piles of work that no longer concern me. That part is nice, although it tends to remind me of the way I used to have loads of stuff piled on me, often while certain pampered prima donnas were off on taxpayer-funded junkets or “retreats” (Retreat from what? I used to ask myself). As if that weren’t perfect for getting me off on the wrong foot, the Federal news is usually followed by the latest presidential twitter outburst, yet another ignorant rant or blatant lie from that twisted mind. Despite the current impeachment talk, I know in my heart that Trump will never be held accountable for anything, because he never has been, despite a lifetime of personal and business sleaze, followed by a corrupt-to-the bones presidency.

Naturally, that leads to a host of other annoyances, until I find myself mad at the entire country. How could the electorate let this happen? It must be a failure of the educational system. I see evidence of that every day. I don’t like to flaunt too much baby boomer superiority, but I gotta ask, when did they stop teaching history and civics in schools? I couldn’t have gotten out of high school without knowing something about the history of my country and the form of government I live under. Are these subjects too controversial these days? Are teachers being instructed to avoid any topics touching on politics for fear of offending somebody?  How, then, is a student ever going to be intellectually challenged? When a large part of the electorate appears to embrace a wannabe dictator, it points to a lack of both critical thinking ability and historical perspective.

This is not strictly the fault of right-wingers, in my opinion. So-called progressives are often guilty of closed-mindedness. For example, there have been battles in local school districts over Huckleberry Finn, arguably the greatest classic of American literature. Some authorities would like to sanitize it, if not ban it entirely, because some of the language is rough on delicate sensibilities. Today’s snowflakes cringe at anything that sounds racist to the modern ear, so they miss the point of the story, which is an eloquent indictment of racism. This inability to put things in context is both startling and alarming.

I also rail against the general loosening of grammatical rules, as if it foretold a barbarian invasion. Not that I’m grammatically perfect myself, but I have particular trouble with the current fad for disguising gender by using a plural pronoun. Something like this often pops up in popular advice columns: “After my partner had tried to find out what was going on with me, I told them how deeply hurt I was.” Unless the writer is actually dealing with multiple partners, this is simply incorrect. I want to shout out: For the love of the English language, people, pick a gender and stick to it. It’s not going to blow your cover. So what if you happen to reveal that your spouse is a man? The world is full of male spouses.

I realize, of course, that there are times when the plural pronoun is being used to make a political point, especially when the subject’s gender is undetermined or in transition. Still, in most instances, that person identifies as either male or female, or closer to one gender than the other. Why not use the preferred gender pronoun, even if a transition is underway and is not yet complete? The Washington Post recently published an intriguing article entitled “A Mother, But Not A Woman.” The subject of the article intended to become male, yet didn’t want to lose the chance to give birth. The sentence “He is a mother” might sound peculiar, but it would underscore that such things are possible in this day and age. And while I’m at it, I’d like to squelch the indiscriminate use of apostrophes when a possessive is not involved, as in “To all artists and writer’s, welcome.” And please, let’s deep-six  “alright” for good.

When anger intrudes on our entertainment, it’s time to chill. For me, baseball has long provided an escape from more serious worries, but sometimes it makes for more aggravation. Sports fans, by definition, are unreasonable, and even those rooting for the same team fight like cats and dogs over every point of strategy. I belong to a Facebook group devoted to my team, the Washington Nationals, that regularly turns into a battle ground. If the team loses, it has to be someone’s fault; it can’t just be that the other team was better or luckier that day.

The group’s primary punching bag is the beleaguered second-year manager, Davey Martinez. This Davey-hatred has abated a little recently, in view of the team’s recent success, but I have no doubt it will rev up again as soon as the Nats fail to win the World Series. Many fans declare that the wins come about in spite of Davey’s stupidity, not because he could possibly have done something right for a change. There is a serious lack of perspective whenever one game goes wrong. In the course of a 162-game regular season, they demand that the manager go for broke and fire all his bullets every time out. That simply isn’t possible, unless it really is an elimination game and there’s no tomorrow to consider.

This strikes me as another form of Trumpism, which boils down to overly simplistic thinking. Second-guessing fans tend to forget that they have the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, which the manager didn’t have when he made whatever decision blew up in his face. I’ve given up trying to convince some people that a bad play, or a blown save, or a missed offensive opportunity could be the result of a player’s failure to execute. Maybe it looks like Martinez put the wrong guy in the wrong situation, but it’s not like he had a ton of better options. Since managers and coaches don’t rise to the level of hero worship that players do, it’s easier to call for their heads. We’d all like to think that if the decision-makers could be replaced, every player would instantly find his inner Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson, and joy would reign throughout Nats Land. I don’t claim to be a fount of wisdom all the time, but I do value reason and intellect, even as a fan. It may take me twenty-four hours or so after a painful loss, but at some point I try to develop some perspective, remind myself it’s just a game, and stop cursing the baseball gods.

Another bad trend I’ve noticed lately is that everyday unpleasantness is getting worse. For the most part, I’ve learned to walk away from rude people, rather than to let a situation escalate. Similarly, I scroll through screeds from Facebook “friends” that I know are full of right-wing nonsense and crazy conspiracy conspiracies. I haven’t “un-friended” anybody over that; I simply refuse to engage.

Still, I don’t think it’s advisable to zone out entirely. Anger can certainly motivate a writer. Looking back, I find that my novels are full of scenes plucked from real life, many of which gave me serious heartburn at the time. My stories deal with turbulent marriages, clueless bosses, workplace cliques, snobbish schoolmates, jealousy, desire for revenge, and many bad situations I’ve dealt with at some time or other. I also like to write about politics, and have always been most roused by politicians I find abhorrent. Now I’m being treated to a daily smorgasbord of stupidity, corruption, incompetence, and cruelty, all wrapped up in one person. I say, don’t sanitize it. Use it.

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My Secret Drawer

I recently came across a half-forgotten drawer in an ancient but sturdy desk where my main computer and printer now sit. This drawer is stuffed with old letters, many of them over forty years old, written long before such contraptions as personal computers and printers existed. These handwritten letters reacquaint me with a world that no longer exists. Not only am I mostly out of touch with the friends who used to correspond with me, but the method of correspondence itself seems to date from medieval times. A message written in a friend’s handwriting provides a level of intimacy that simply doesn’t come across in e-mails. It reminds me that I had some vibrant friendships before and during college, and for a few years afterward. Those friendships have mostly gone by the wayside for various reasons, but there are no hard feelings, at least not on my part. Even if a few of them ghosted me, I’m grateful for the time we had. Without my small group of friends, I would have been lonely in high school and college, at least when it came to other girls. They were there for me when I really needed them.

Many years later, some of my college friends have turned up, unbidden and fictionalized, in my novels The Rock Star’s Homecoming and its sequel, Sycophants. My portraits of them are nostalgic but not altogether flattering. I gave them the collective name of “nondescripts,” not that I thought of them that way back then. It was a name they coined for themselves in the stories. The more popular and influential stars of the college tended to overlook them as part of the woodwork. But that didn’t mean they were incapable of exerting themselves behind the scenes.

It occurs to me now that in our post-college years, my friends were generally braver than I was. While I returned to my DC-area hometown and prepared for a fairly safe career as a bureaucrat, they plunged into the worlds of journalism and teaching. They all struggled some in the mid-1970s job market. The one friend whom I always thought had a real shot at fame, the aspiring journalist, is still obscure to this day. She lacked nothing in talent, drive, and ambition, but she could have used more luck. I remember how excited I was for her when she seemed on the verge of launching a reporting career in DC. One day I  accompanied her to the office of a small publication, a local sports magazine, for which she had written a free-lance article. That rag folded under dubious circumstances, as someone apparently made off with the start-up money. Sadly, that seemed to be the story of my friend’s life. She started her own print newsletter, eventually to be superseded by digital ones. She had some great ideas for free-lance articles, but even when she scored the necessary interviews, they weren’t published. She moved away for her husband’s career, raised a family, and finally caught on with a mid-west newspaper, but worked mostly for free.

The teachers also had their share of struggles, given the state of education in their mostly rural jurisdictions. They learned their craft, slowly but surely. There was no such thing as leisure time for these young educators―they barely had a moment to write those letters. After-school hours were taken up with counseling students and preparing lessons. Some progress could be detected in their letters, as the tone moved from exhausted to merely stressed. The kids they described as their “problem children” gradually became less problematic.

Some letters contained bad news, and I can even say there were a few nervous breakdowns. I believe this was characteristic of the baby boom generation. We put so much pressure on ourselves to equal our peerless parents of the Greatest Generation, but we didn’t benefit from the same booming postwar economy that lifted them. I knew one girl who got so comfortable in college (or more accurately, scared of the real world) that she stayed on and took courses beyond the ones required for her degree. She clung to that academic shelter until the college kicked her out. Then she started running through part-time jobs, and managed to get fired from substitute teaching and waitressing. The last I heard, her parents were still taking care of her.

There were a few genuine tragedies along the way. A friend of mine since junior high, who to my chagrin always outperformed me academically in school, went to the state university and fell apart after being sexually assaulted on campus. She started writing me weird poems. I also received a letter from her younger sister, advising me that much of what I was hearing from my friend were lies. Soon she dropped out of college and had to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility. After her release, she married hastily, had two children, became an abused wife, and was getting divorced around the time her siblings were getting married. “I made a mess of my life,” she wrote plaintively.

Sometimes the breakdowns were slow-moving. My best friend during my final year at college was one of the most stable and sensible girls I knew. She progressed farther as a teacher than any of the others, from junior high to the college level. You would think that having mastered classrooms full of hormonal twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds would prepare her for any subsequent challenge. As a professor and a dean, she published some articles about educational theory, but I’m guessing the writing part of her career dried up after a while. She may have felt her ideas were unappreciated, although I had never known her to be a fanatic. At any rate, she committed suicide by self-immolation, making the local news for just a day. I find myself reading and re-reading her letters, trying to glimpse between the lines any hint of the girl who would be capable of such an act.

I treated my best friends rather unfairly in my college novel and its sequel. It’s true they mostly stayed sequestered in the dorm on Saturday nights, the way I depicted them, drowning their loneliness in popcorn and soft drinks and gaining weight, while the big shots of the college turned up their noses at them. They didn’t actually plot ways of getting back at those snobs, as far as I know. I made up the scenes in which they crashed a Homecoming dance, fixed school elections, and finally set the spark to a more serious eruption of violence on campus.

Sycophants takes up the story several years later. My heroine, Imogene, has gotten a foothold in a film production company run by her dynamic former college roommate. She writes a movie script called “The Nondescripts,” to commemorate a crowd she was friendly with in college but avoided embracing totally. Imogene’s screenplay never gets produced as a feature, merely turning up as a few scenes of backstory in an ongoing movie project. When Imogene calls on the actual “nondescripts” to play themselves in those scenes, they are stars for a day.

The letters my real friends wrote back then are anything but “nondescript.” They are vital and ambitious, if sometimes anguished. I’d forgotten how alive we all were in those days. My secret drawer provides a disorganized jumble of memories, literally falling apart, but more meaningful than any e-mail trail will ever be.

Boneheaded Bureaucrats

Let me start by saying I spent many years behind bureaucratic desks myself. Like all of us paper-pushers, I was fairly insulated from the public I was supposed to be serving. I worked in a high-security building that became increasingly difficult, year by year, to enter without credentials. Phone systems were a maze for anyone on the outside to negotiate. Apart from this kind of insulation, there are rules and regulations, unique to each agency, that limit the bureaucrat’s ability to act on the public’s behalf, at least with any speed. Mountains of red tape are required to accomplish anything in government.

Now that I’m retired and on the other side of the wall, I have to say I’ve never been more frustrated with bureaucrats who have stood in the way of my accomplishing what have always been routine but necessary tasks. Maybe I took on too large a challenge by trying to renew my driver’s license and get a passport in the same year. I’ve come up against something new, the federal REAL ID Act, which puts upon the citizen the entire burden of proving he or she isn’t a hostile alien. I never dreamed it would be so difficult for a native-born American like myself, who has only been outside the United States twice in my life, to prove this. I worked for the Federal government for over 35 years, and had a top secret security clearance for the jobs that required it. I’m now an an annuitant, and on Medicare, for heaven’s sake. I’ve renewed my driver’s license countless times before, and the passport I had years ago was easily obtained with just a hospital record of my birth. But now, it seems, everything has to be super-official and sealed.

It has been like pulling teeth to obtain a certified copy of my birth certificate from the office of vital statistics where I was born, Washington DC. The main obstacle is having been born in 1952, apparently a year in which birth certificates were not routinely issued with all the necessary formalities. Certificate of this age tend to be in fragile shape, or don’t have a raised seal, or are lacking some information. Abstracts have to be made, a process which I was told would take two weeks. Try two months.

While I was struggling with this, my older brother, born at the exact same hospital and to the exact same parents, received his passport with no problem at all. His birth certificate, issued in 1947, apparently had been endowed with the requisite raised seal. In a nice Catch-22 situation, it turned out that having the passport in hand would have eased my license renewal process.

In order to prove my legitimacy, I’ve had to come up with documents that literally didn’t exist when the new requirements went into effect. They had to be recreated in a way that I can only hope will satisfy bureaucrats of various stripes. I got periodic updates from a well-recommended third party I enlisted to handle the matter. These ran along the lines of  “Sorry, but this process takes time.” Their refusal to give exact timetables is aggravating when you’re up against your own deadlines. Meanwhile, in a desperate do-it-yourself attempt, I searched three different databases that supposedly have millions of vital records. They enticed me to apply for access by claiming, during a test run, that my maiden name turned up several matches. Once in the systems, the same name came up zero. What’s with that? To be unable to find written acknowledgement of your existence is downright chilling.

I’ve tried to use what writer’s eloquence I possess, through emails and phone calls, to try to get the relevant bureaucrats to listen to reason. It’s not like appealing to a business, which depends on a customer’s good will and future patronage. I was able to break through some barriers when I made those non-refundable hotel reservations by mistake, or when I had to talk my way back onto social media sites that locked me out for no apparent reason, or when I finally got an appliance store to deliver a hard-to-obtain dishwasher after three cancelled deliveries. But now I’m dealing with bureaucracies, not businesses. The law makes them utterly inflexible, and they don’t need my good will. It doesn’t seem to matter that it’s not my fault I was born in 1952. Lately, a dark suspicion has occurred to me: that these processes are less about security and more about harassing and inconveniencing certain classes of people who don’t tend to support the dominant political party.

How much more of a US citizen could I be? My paternal ancestors helped to found New Amsterdam in the 1600s. A great-grandfather on my mother’s side was friends with and worked for Theodore Roosevelt. I have a photograph to prove it … but how would I convince a bureaucrat that the handsome man sitting beside TR is really my great-grandfather? At times I get irrationally angry at my parents for not making me as “official” as my older brother. I know having two children is twice as hard, but you still have to properly register all your kids, not just the first.

Postscript: After further effort, I was finally able to get past the irritating rotary phone systems and communicate with real humans, which has made me feel immensely better. Flesh-and-blood people, as a rule, really do want to help you. I talked to one on the phone who assured me that she would put the necessary copies of my birth certificate in the mail without further delay. They have arrived, and have actual signatures and seals that make them look official. A few days later, an in-person visit to the local department of motor vehicles went off fairly smoothly, despite time wasted standing in the wrong line and in front of a lady whose driving privileges were in jeopardy because she had misplaced her social security card. So as of now, I haven’t given up on ever driving or traveling again. As I’ve had to learn as a writer, you can’t be a quitter. If I hit further snags, I’ll persevere, even if it means suing somebody or starting my own movement.

Karma Is Better Than Revenge

 

I can safely say I carry a fair amount of baggage from my school days. I had the typical tough times that are bound to happen to introverts who struggle to navigate social life. School is where we discover the purpose of cliques. They are invented to make the insiders feel good about themselves by excluding others. Now that I’m old enough to have some perspective, I realize there’s no point in sweating the old school cliques. They have a way of breaking apart of their own accord. Besides, they provide all kinds of writing fodder.

Roommate snobbery is particularly up close and personal. My freshman roommate at college made a point of breaking up with me in order to join a “popular corner” in the hall and snare a supposedly more congenial roommate. She must have thought she had it made, but in fact the “popular corner” didn’t last very long. Her second roommate shocked her by moving out abruptly. Although I didn’t witness it, I heard this breakup produced a major crying and screaming fit. I couldn’t have invented a better example of Karma if I tried, so I told the story fairly straight in Handmaidens of Rock.

Do mean kids ever regret their meanness in middle and old age? Or are they still basically the same people? I certainly have regrets about times when I could have been nicer, which I hope demonstrates some growth as a person. Looking back, I realize that there were certain schoolmates from whom you expected meanness, and others from which a snub came as something of a surprise. One girl in particular sticks in my mind. I apparently made a faux pas at a social event when I presumed on our former casual acquaintance. I had never thought we were friends, exactly, but I hadn’t realized until that moment that we were enemies. I suspect she was acting out of a real fear of losing her own place in a clique that she had barely gotten into. She was not very attractive, and I had noticed before that she was insecure around these so-called friends. I wonder if she ever reflects now on how shallow her behavior was.

As a writer, I have crystallized her into a type. There isn’t much point in imagining some horrible fate for her, which wouldn’t necessarily make for a plausible story. Sometimes real life  … Karma, if you will … takes care of things just fine. This woman, for some reason, writes more updates to our college alumni news column than anyone else in our class, and includes more detail than could possibly interest a casual reader. None of it is particularly newsworthy, which seems to underscore her need for reassurance about her life. Reading between the lines, I’d say she’s much the same person she was all those years ago. She’s not terrible, just ordinary. Maybe that’s punishment enough. She’ll never know, but I’ve used her as a lifelong example of how not to be.

I never contribute to the Alumni News myself, but I read it with fascination. Naturally, most contributors use it to pump themselves up as much as possible. But if you happened to know that person long ago, and remember what her goals and expectations were, you can sense discontent between the lines. There are also certain classmates who cry out for praise, like the one who has made a career of working for non-profits. I can’t help remembering that this particular girl had trouble showing kindness when confronted face-to-face with an individual in need. Why is that so much more difficult than showing compassion for an entire culture or a class of people? I can also remember some notorious Bible-thumpers who would cut you dead most days, but mindful of the need to build up some brownie points with God, were willing to pray for you.

 

School cliques are to be expected, but workplace cliques are worse. I didn’t really encounter this in a toxic way until late in my Federal government career, but it finished me as a truly engaged employee. I have spent the 4.5 years since my retirement pondering what went so wrong, when I had always been conscientious about my work and believed passionately in the agency’s mission. My downfall began about ten years ago, when a new supervisor arrived in my office and hired two “senior” analysts who were much younger than I. The supervisor was so nice on the surface that I thought I might as well try to live with the situation. I was edging toward retirement anyway, and living with it would be easier than trying to find another position, which would mean competing against younger candidates who were automatically favored. But the five years I spent with this dynamic turned out to be a humiliating experience, as my three so-called colleagues formed a clique that I was systematically excluded from.

From what I hear, many aging Federal employees go through this winnowing out process. The agencies have their ways of getting rid of older workers while trying to sidestep accusations of outright age discrimination, which would be illegal. They just ignore you as much as possible, and relegate you to grunt work when they can. I wouldn’t have minded that so much, as someone has to do the routine tasks, and I was still getting a nice paycheck considering how little substantive work I did. In fact, I would be a fool to complain about Federal employment at all, now that I’m happily pensioned off. But it would have been much more satisfying to work for my money and utilize my true skills, as I did when I was young and “promising.” And I would have preferred not to have my nose rubbed in the entitled behavior of the office elite, who were doing essentially the same work that we ordinary drones had done for years, but simply made more of a fuss about it. I believe the sort of grade inflation that was practiced then is beginning to have serious ramifications. In a new and much more challenging technological age, the agencies are crying out for specialized skills. I’m guessing that after years of overspending for nothing special, my office doesn’t really have the budget to compete for the true hot-shots it needs.

My supervisor formed a tight bond with his two young princesses, indulging in all kinds of junkets, “retreats,” and lunches. Guess who had the privilege of covering the office when they weren’t there? After a while, my nice-on-the-surface supervisor began to ghost me. It’s taken me all this time to figure out that’s what he was doing, and that there is a word for it. He was still polite whenever I confronted him, but he ignored me as much as he could. The first time I noticed this was on the day I came back from a long-awaited and deserved vacation. As I listened to him visit with a colleague, and ask her about every detail of her weekend, I realized he had no intention of acknowledging my existence until he absolutely had to.

Sometimes I wanted to scream in the hallways, “Don’t you people realize that some of your best workers have gray hair?” I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but none of my younger colleagues seemed to have a work ethic comparable to mine. They expected to be rewarded for everything they did, and balked at doing anything extra―I was the one available after hours when my supervisor got desperate. One time, when I confronted him about a meeting I had been excluded from, although I had worked on the project supposedly under discussion, he was forced to admit that the “meeting” had been a bonding thing, not about business. So it was clear: I was excluded because I wasn’t in the friend zone.

I used parts of my upcoming novel, Sycophants, to try to work out this dynamic. My heroine, Imogene, is excited to be hired by an entertainment production company, only to find that her immediate supervisor is determined to relegate her to the position of office drone. Her frustration grows as she is expected to cover for continual junkets taken by the supervisor and his favorites, and is excluded from closed-door meetings where the really creative matters are discussed. But Imogene accomplishes more by attending to her own interests, and spying a little, than she would by lashing out … and as usual, the clique nurtures the seeds of its own destruction.

Likewise, my real-life supervisor eventually lost control over his cozy group. One of their junkets turned into something of a disaster. They flew into Chicago ostensibly to visit an agency training center, at a time when an autumn snowstorm was bearing down on the city. On top of that, O’Hare Airport was a mess because of computer failures. After they came home from that misadventure, the clique seemed a little less unified than before. Eventually, it fell apart. I guess the princesses thought their benefactor could have exercised a little more creativity by taking them on some pretext to visit the Honolulu office.

It was a fine time to sit back and let Karma reign. Even with a writer’s imagination, we don’t have to conjure up mayhem for our adversaries. I didn’t really want their plane to crash while trying to leave Chicago, and even if it had, I wouldn’t have benefited. But I was amused to learn recently that an old co-worker of mine, who is going through much the same nonsense that I endured, is fighting back in a way I lacked the courage and energy to do. It seems her supervisor hired a friend for a position that should have gone to her. She has filed a grievance, to be followed possibly by a civil suit, alleging both racial and age discrimination. I know that “friendship” discrimination is even harder to prove, but something tells me that this time there might be hell to pay.

If Trump Were A Novelist

Sometimes when the daily news gets too grim for me, I play a trick on myself. I pretend it’s all part of a serialized narrative concocted by the news media for my entertainment. I’m not suggesting it’s “false news.” I’m just using my imagination to pretend it’s less serious than it really is. With this technique I can imagine that the president isn’t necessarily the pathological liar and delusional idiot he appears to be, but more of a creative genius who has fashioned a unique presidential character, barely believable but endlessly amusing.

Such creativity, if that’s what it is, makes me jealous. I’ve written two novels, Secretarial Wars and Let’s Play Ball, in which lousy presidents play a part, but this Trump creation blows them both away. My presidents were morally challenged manipulators, but I never envisioned what we appear to have now, a full-blown Fascist who not only aspires to be a dictator, but seems to believe he already is one. How is this possible in America, with its 230-year-old constitution? It’s got to be a fantasy, right?

This raises the question of whether Trump is aware of his own creativity. His lying is so constant and shameless that it seems to be a reflex action. Does he realize that most of what he spouts is garbage, or is he able to convince himself, at least in the moment, that he’s speaking the truth? Does he really believe he got a great deal with North Korea, or that he makes our NATO allies and trading partners respect us with his empty bluster? Has he convinced himself he actually cares about struggling people? Does he see himself as the caped crusader who saved the country from the Islamic threat posed by Barack Obama? Or that he has the power to make inconvenient statements and actions from his past go away, no matter how well documented they are?

This running show will continue as long as his political base holds strong and continues to lap it all up. That percentage of the electorate sometimes scarily approaches, or even exceeds, forty percent. As long as these folks believe everything their hero says, he can say and do anything. A strong contingent within the base reportedly believes, quite literally, that Obama is the anti-Christ. That would seem to imply that Trump himself is Christ, or a Christ-like figure, despite his demonstrated inability to name a single Bible verse or to identify a communion wafer when he saw one. His most powerful enablers, including the bulk of Congressional Republicans, will stand by and watch this show continue to unfold without interfering with it, as long as it continues to benefit their interests. Now and then a few betray some discomfort with the sham, but not enough to stop it.

The one thing Trump can’t do, if he is to preserve his heroic narrative, is to lose his bid for reelection. If this appears possible in the final days of the 2020 campaign, he’ll at least make noises about tearing up the constitution, always an obstacle to achieving his full greatness, and canceling the election. Polls seem to indicate his base would be more than fine with this. Or if he goes through with the election and loses, he’ll declare it false news and demand that the results be thrown out, which would make his base ecstatic. Thus, in one blow, he will rewrite both history and reality.

If I’d been asleep for over two years and had just awoken to the daily news, I’d think comedians had taken over traditional outlets. It’s the perfect setup for a satirical political comedy with a catchy logline: an adversarial country sabotages our electoral process and installs their own choice as president, an ignorant buffoon who makes us the laughing stock of the world. He’s a brilliant caricature, worthy of Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator. His own glorification is all that matters. If it could be passed off as comedy, his Nazi-like speeches to his most ardent supporters would be less scary and more like performance art.

Trump reaches new heights of comic genius when he accuses others of what he’s guilty of himself, thus deflecting attention from his own actions. All of his opponents are crooks and liars, and the investigations surrounding his associates are witch hunts. Most recently, he turned the tables brilliantly when he accused Obama of being a patsy for Russia. He went on to declare, with a straight face, that the Russians are bent on helping Democrats win the 2018 mid-terms. The question remains: Is this man crazy? Or is he just ribbing us all, with the twinkle of a gifted comic in his eye?

Character In The White House

Nothing about current times is normal. Something has gone wildly askew in American political life. We elected the worst possible candidate for President in 2016, a man whose asinine behavior and utter lack of knowledge about government should have disqualified him long before he got near the Oval Office. Those of us who expected to be saved by an outbreak of sanity in the lead-up to that election were sadly mistaken. He was an insanely, almost comically bad choice then, and his behavior in office, if anything, has been even worse. Most likely we will be paying the price for many years to come, but one thing we must not do is to accept this state of affairs as the new normal.

Fortunately, we have history to fall back on. There has never been an era of true tranquility in American political life, but most of our presidents have appreciated the ideals set forth in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The American Presidency has been filled with a fascinating mixture of extraordinary men, troubled personalities, and some rather ordinary intellects. Even the exceptional occupants of the office have not been free of character flaws and partisan prejudices. Most have at least understood the magnitude of the job they were taking on, even if they couldn’t perform it adequately. A series of weak presidents leading up to the Civil War proved unable or unwilling to do anything to avert the growing emergency; it took Lincoln to do that. In the twentieth century, men who were highly respected and accomplished in other fields, like Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, nevertheless failed at the presidency. I suspect they were smart enough to realize the job was too much for them. Even presidents who weren’t that smart realized this on some level. Warren G. Harding reportedly confessed to friends that he was in over his head. By contrast, the buffoon who now occupies the Oval Office (when he isn’t too busy partying elsewhere) would never admit to any limitations. The more he blunders, the more he will double down on his own magnificence.

A great president can’t have Trump’s black-and-white, self-centered views. It’s too complicated a world for that. The right man or woman for the job would know how to compromise, to reason, and to see nuances. Opponents would not be dismissed as worthless because they disagree. Last President’s Day, I finally managed to watch all 8.5 hours of HBO’s wonderful series about John Adams, and it was worth it. Adams is unjustly neglected because he was a one-termer. (Trump probably never heard of John Adams, but if he did, he’d no doubt label him a “loser.”) Adams was a loudmouth, often his own worst enemy. But as a young lawyer, he took the courageous and unpopular step of defending British soldiers after the Boston Massacre of 1770, winning the acquittal of six of the eight soldiers on the grounds that they acted in self-defense against a mob. The rule of law meant more to Adams than popularity.

He had a complicated relationship with Thomas Jefferson. As young men, they were partners in the struggle for independence, although they differed in their vision of what the young country should become. Then as now, there were disagreements about how strong the central government should be. When Adams became the second president, Jefferson was installed as vice president. It was an uneasy partnership. They agreed on little, and the slavery question was particularly intractable. Adams was adamantly anti-slavery, while Jefferson, who agreed that it was a moral stain on the country, nevertheless professed himself unable to see his way to a solution.

Rumors about Jefferson’s relationship with the slave Sally Hemings were already rampant. The presidential election of 1800 was a close and bitter one, in which Jefferson edged out the incumbent. Adams presumably didn’t do much to broadcast the Hemings story, when it could have helped him most, because he wasn’t sure he believed it. Has Trump ever showed such restraint, once the merest glimmer of a conspiracy theory entered his warped mind?

Adams and Jefferson had a reconciliation of sorts, after both were through with the presidency. They established a correspondence that was still going on when both died, rather weirdly, on the same day, which happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence.

There have been other great reconciliations in American history. They came about because the politicians involved, even after a lifetime of disagreements, were able to regard one another as human beings. The brilliant historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written at length about a few of these. Her 2005 book about Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals, describes Lincoln’s determination to bring on board the three opponents whom he had defeated for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. They were: William Seward, a product of the New York political machine and the frontrunner for most of the race; Salmon Chase, the Ohio governor and the strongest abolitionist among the four; and Edward Bates, Missouri Attorney General and the most conservative of the group.

Imagine how contentious those first cabinet meetings must have been, with the nerves of the campaign still raw. Somehow, those egocentric men found a way to join forces and bring the country through the Civil War. Contrast this with Trump’s handling of his cabinet meetings and briefings. He reportedly can’t sit for them at all unless a chorus of sycophants spends at least the first thirty minutes telling him how great and wonderful he is. They are always on tenterhooks for fear the dear leader will go off the rails if he hears an inconvenient fact that threatens his ego.

The theme of close friends falling out and eventually reconciling seems fairly common in the highest ranks of government. Goodwin’s 2013 book, The Bully Pulpit, describes the long, sometimes rocky relationship between back-to-back presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The two met around 1890, when both began working in Washington. Although they were near-opposites in personality, their political philosophies were in tune with the progressive Republican tradition of the time. (Neither, I venture to guess, would be a Republican today.) They enjoyed walking to work together and exchanging ideas, although a streetcar was available. Taft stopped off at the Justice Department where he was solicitor general, and Roosevelt continued ten blocks farther to the Civil Service headquarters where he was Commissioner. The two also enjoyed lunching together. Roosevelt would talk without noticing what he was eating, while the rather rotund Taft was more reticent, and savored his meals. I can imagine what stimulated their discussions. They must have shared plans to rid the government of the corruption that was rampant at that time. Their wives weren’t close, although both were well-educated and literary-minded. Edith Roosevelt was always trying to restrain her impulsive husband, while Nellie Taft’s ambition for her husband exceeded his own.

When Roosevelt became president, Taft served his administration as civilian governor of the Philippines and Secretary of War. When Roosevelt left office, he supported Taft in his successful presidential campaign, trusting his own legacy would be continued. It didn’t turn out that way. The two had honest disagreements about how far the progressive movement should go. Taft, a born lawyer and judge, believed that Roosevelt had done harm by trying to bend the Constitution to his will. He didn’t approve of that, even for a good cause. Roosevelt torpedoed Taft’s reelection chances by forming a third party, sending him down to a humiliating defeat. How could anyone be crueler to a former friend?

As in the case of Adams and Jefferson, it took years for the friendship to regenerate, but it finally happened. The first few attempts by Taft to reach out to Roosevelt were not well received. It took a chance meeting at a Chicago hotel, presumably aided by a nice meal, for the two to finally embrace and talk on a person level. Onlookers in the restaurant, understanding the significance of this meeting, reportedly stood and cheered. From then on, the two men enjoyed a lively correspondence until Roosevelt died.

Politicians in America have always argued, debated, and disagreed; the more heated the debates, the more vibrant the democracy. Trump’s pernicious influence is creating a post-democratic system in which well-reasoned disagreements carry less weight than personal attacks. Trump lacks the intellect and character to be president of a democracy, which thrives on honest, well-reasoned differences of opinion. He’d be perfectly cast as the dictator of a banana republic, in which nobody dared to question his perfection and greatness.

Creating The Baby Boom

My parents regarded themselves as ordinary people. Their story is, in fact, quite commonplace. Dad was a corporal in the army during World War Two, serving with the 79th Signal Company in Europe. Like so many on the home front, Mom, then his fiancée, waited for his return, scribbling frantically in her diary and no doubt praying for his safety every night. When it was all over, they got married and started a family. This story was repeated so many times that it started a demographic wave known as the Baby Boom. We are just starting to become elderly ourselves.

Mom and Dad met when he was eighteen, about to leave for Harvard, and she was fourteen, a product of Catholic schools and later secretarial school. Judging from confessions made over the years, Dad never really loved anybody but her, and might well have remained a bachelor if she had turned him down. As it was, she put him through a long period of indecision while she debated the relative merits of her suitors in that well-used diary.

One of these was an older man by more than a decade, both handsome and mysterious. He wasn’t in the regular military, but worked for an organization he declined to identify, doing things he wasn’t at liberty to discuss. He, too, had to go away. Before he left, he asked her if she would send him off with the memory of fulfilled love. She refused indignantly, being a well-raised Catholic girl, but he took the refusal graciously; in fact, he claimed to respect her all the more. He disappeared after that, at least from her life. As far as she could learn, he never returned from a mission to South America.

It wasn’t until Dad was about to leave for the front that she decided he was the one. He could only hope she wouldn’t change her mind, and she could only hope he would return in one piece. She had a number of “Dear John” letters to write. The end of the war in Europe came when Dad was still overseas, but that didn’t end their worries. The soldiers who didn’t have all their points on VE day would be assigned immediately to occupation duty. It seemed likely that they would eventually be sent to the Pacific front. A few months later, two atom bombs ended that possibility. An act that inflicted untold death and misery on civilians in Japan may well have saved my father’s life, and many other American lives, and set the stage for the baby boom to come.

Ordinary as my parents’ story is, it has all the elements of a great drama. It has backstory, life-threatening scenarios, suspense, and apparent resolutions that were not as perfectly resolved as they appeared to be. The historians have delineated the basic plot, but the letters flowing back and forth between the war front and the home front fill in the details and supply the emotions.

Couples like my parents, buffeted by historic events out of their control, seemed to long not only for each other, but for a peaceful life. By the time it was over, they thought they’d endured enough drama to last a lifetime. They wanted nothing more than to settle down and live a “normal” life, surrounded by white picket fences and manicured lawns and happy children playing. Still, they didn’t totally trust that vision. A long economic depression before the war had darkened the national outlook. The hangover from that era made people cynical and untrusting of the economy, even when it appeared strong during the 1950s. They knew it had looked deceptively solid in the late 1920s as well. Even those who were living a decent middle class life tended to be careful. In their letters my parents had envisioned a family of three children, but they stopped at two. I guess my brother and I were challenging enough.

Eventually, Mom let me read her diary. I laughed out loud at the entry she made on Pearl Harbor Day. No political reflections on the cataclysm that had visited the country, but plenty of concern that her dating life would soon dry up. I learned, further, that her own father was instrumental in making the final choice between her remaining suitors. Once it had come down to two, it was quite a stark choice, between a Harvard graduate, my future dad, and a musician who hadn’t graduated from high school. She loved the exciting, on-the-edge band life that this boyfriend offered, but with her father’s help, she made the pragmatic choice. (My dad was also a musician, but it was only a weekend sidelight for him). I can’t help believing it was also the right choice, even if life didn’t fall into place immediately. My dad didn’t return to the bank where he had worked before the war. He eventually found himself in the Federal government, continuing a family tradition that my brother and I carried on as well.

That “happily ever after” ending seemed within reach after the great national crises were over, but it didn’t turn out so perfect, as it never does in real life. While the “greatest generation” had triumphed over the Fascists, we baby boomers had to contend with the Vietnam War, in which the goals seemed less justifiable and no clear-cut victory was possible. My folks had a son of draft age, and his lottery number was unfavorable. He came through his military sevice okay, but the anxiety they went through as a result shook their faith in the government and its leaders. The patriotism that had been sky-high and unquestioning all through their own war, and for several years afterward, took a serious hit.

Dad didn’t talk much about the grimmer side of his Army experiences. There were some good times he preferred to dwell on. He made friends with whom he reminisced at many reunions over the years. They recalled the jubilant day when their unit became one of the first to cross the Rhine, and my dad entertained everyone with his piano playing. He did reflect sometimes on the complicated reaction he and many of his bunkmates had when the atom bombs dropped on Japan. No one could help being grateful that the war was over, but the magnitude of the weapons that were now in play made people fearful and gloomy about the future of mankind.

When the soldiers came home from World War Two, pessimistic though they might have been about some things, a huge percentage of them made the most sincere investment possible in the future. The existence of the baby boom generation says something about the resiliency and determination of the human spirit. Faced with the greatest existential peril that mankind had ever known, what did they do? They made a wave of babies who would have no choice but to grow up and to carry on.