Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Little Bitty Story ’Bout America, Told, We Hope, Without Saccharine or Sentiment

Back during the Democratic primaries, when we’d ask our mother about Obama, she’d wrinkle her forehead and raise her eyebrows before muttering darkly about the “cult-like” trappings of his popularity. This was---is---a not uncommon reaction among people whose intelligence we respect, including the Libertarian guy behind the counter at a Starbucks we frequent who, on the day after Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, claimed that the whole fussy production reminded him of The Nightmare Years, the William Shirer tome on Hitler’s rise to power. We tend(ed) to agree with these assessments, except that instead of a home-grown, Oprah-ized fascism---suggested by that precious Orwellian admonition to “become the change you’ve been waiting for”---we saw a benighted but goofy idealism toted like a giant chip on the shoulder by the young and would-be young, one that would surely be shattered by a head-on collision with reality (which has surely come, as you can trace through Obama’s transformation in cinematic archetype from Elmer Gantry to Cool Hand Luke, a much more appealing pose).

But we entertained our mother’s objections seriously. She voted for Clinton in her Democratic primary---support that, as for many women her age and younger, was surely aspirational. Plus, she admired the woman’s resiliency and her hard-nosed MYF* do-gooderism. She even likes Bill, a lot, but ruefully, most likely because he reminded her of some needy, too-eager-to-please first graders she had taught over the years. (She’s the only person we know who actually read the man’s jillion-page autobiography.)

We found her post-convention aversion to Obama odd, though, because she’s a Democrat who can count on her fingers the Republicans she’s voted for over the past 60 years. That includes Eisenhower, twice, and a school board candidate who was the son of a beloved and respected principal she worked for. (“He’s a very nice boy, and intelligent, but he’s a, y’know, Republican,” she explained after raising a yard sign for the boy.) There may have been a GOP candidate or two for governor of Louisiana in there somewhere, although she stuck with Democrat Edwin Edwards, one of the most corrupt politicians of post-World War II America, because he as promised had paid off his support from schoolteachers with nice retirement benefits. She has long been disdainful of the entire Bush clan. Back in 2000 she presciently dismissed the incoming president as a “drugstore cowboy,” and just two weeks after he launched his misadventure in Iraq she stood glaring at CNN and declared, through clenched teeth, “That SOB has a tiger by the tail, mark my word.”

So she’s pretty much a yellow dog Democrat, an affiliation that dates far back into Texas’s and our nation’s past. Hers is not the typical story of small-town, segregationist Democrat-turned-conservative suburban Republican, but rather of small-town segregationist Democrat-turned- moderately conservative Democrat, and remaining one. The party may have left her, but she did not leave the party.

A distaste for Vietnam helped maintain the allegiance after LBJ departed, but she primarily remained a Democrat because, like many white Southerners, she found it impossible to deny the moral claims of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement---impossible to square the supposed point of World War II and the ideas about liberty and freedom she was exposed to in college with the everyday brutal reality of enforced segregation in the Deep South. These people did not march or agitate but quietly resolved to acquiesce. They were not heroic, but they went against their raising. That’s hard to do.

Our mother grew up in deep East Texas, in the same little town from which future San Francisco mayor Willie Brown fled while still a teenager. A little to the north of there sits the burg of Greenville, which as, she recalls, once famously welcomed visitors with a cheery sign proclaiming “Greenville: The Blackest Land and the Whitest People.” Her father, a “railroad doctor” for Southern Pacific, was a power in local politics, maybe the power, and back then “power” meant Democrat and in much of East Texas Democrat meant “Dixiecrat” or the Texas Regulars, as those who had soured on FDR’s overreaching and the national party’s tentative embrace of civil rights called themselves. She remembers taking a train to Dallas to accompany her father to a state convention, maybe the one where the Texas Regulars threw their support to Strom Thurmond. “I didn’t know anything about politics,” she says. “I just wanted to go to Neiman’s.”

Some years later, in the early ’60s, long after my grandfather had died, I was party to at least two strange, overheated summer nights when relatives sat around the big oak table in the dining foyer of the House of Seven Gables-style manse my mother’s family had occupied for almost a century. Through a thick haze of cigarette smoke, they argued, argued, argued until late in the evening, voices rising loudly and falling as they debated the changes that were stirring even in their little nowhere town. The word “nigger” occasionally lit the air---these were not uneducated or even unrefined people, more like what they used to call small-town shabby genteel, but they were of their place and time---and the bitterness was as thick as the smoke. On one side, alone, was my mother, who had gone away to UT during the Homer Rainey years and never really returned home, and on the other was my aunt Rosalie and my grandmother and other relatives and dropper-bys. In the face of unanimous opposition from others around the table, my mother maintained that whether they liked it or not integration was coming and they best reconcile themselves to it. One or both of these evenings ended with her in tears (we believe our father, who did not enjoy confrontation or too much political discussion, must have retired to the big front porch to discuss SWC football with another non-combatant) and suggestions that she was a traitor---to her family, and a whole way of life.

We look back now and see our self on those nights as a Stuart Little figure, quiet and watchful in our PJs, absorbing it all while being violently transported a new kind of adult wakefulness by the vehemence of the discussion, the dropping of the masks. We recall rooting quietly for our mother and admiring her intellect and obstinacy, her unwillingness to back down.

Not that she’s a flaming liberal. She’s got no use for affirmative action or illegal immigration and little tolerance for the Al Sharptons or anyone else who hollers “racism” when the facts could just as easily suggest another interpretation. After Obama’s nomination she professed to be up in the air. “I don’t know what I’m going do,” she’d say when we’d inquire. “Oh, I know why you’re not going for Obama,” we teased. “You know I’m not like that,” she’d say, genuinely offended. “Yeah---we understand, believe me, we understand,” we’d say, reflecting our own dissatisfaction with the choices, but like the jerk we are we did wonder whether 1930s East Texas was just too deeply ingrained in her to let her vote for a black guy.

Then came Palin. “I guess I’m going with Obama,” she said without much enthusiasm. And the financial crisis. “Yeah, I’m with Obama,” she said with slightly more conviction. “He did pretty good in that debate, I thought.”

And there it is. She’s not voting for the guy because he’s black---that’d be the last thing she’d do. And she’s not voting for him because he’s a Democrat. She weighed the imperfect options before her and made her choice, reluctantly. And whatever happens on Nov. 4, we have to stand back in wonderment at how far our mother, now in her 9th decade, has traveled from home. If we told her as much, she would, to her credit, probably suggest that we are full of shit.

*Methodist Youth Fellowship, for you infidels.


Banjo Jones said...

i enjoyed that one a lot, Mr. Slampo.

your mom sounds like a heulluva gal.

sorta reminded me of my mom, though she wasn't as forthright as yours is. For instance, she'd only allow that she didn't like Nixon (during Watergate) when we were alone, out of earshot of my dad, a Rockefeller Republican.

Slampo said...

Thanks, Sr. Banjo. So your dad musta been the lone Rockefeller Republican in Baytown, huh? Today I think that'd translate to "Socialist," if not "Comm'unist." Viva la revolucion!