Tuesday, August 9, 2011

It's Lights Out in the Political Theater

Thirty-seven years ago today, I know exactly where I was—in Bangor, Pennsylvania. My mother was looking after my grandfather while my grandmother was away. It was also the day in American history when Richard Nixon’s presidency officially ended at high noon. I recall my mother telling my grandfather he resembled our new president, Gerald Ford, “a Ford not a Lincoln.” I also remember he tasted lentil soup for the first time in his life. When asked for his appraisal, he replied, “I’ve tasted worser [sic] soups.”

I was not yet twelve then but nonetheless fascinated with political theater, although not political issues. Nowadays, I’d say, I’m decidedly less interested in the theater but very much interested in the issues. And it’s not solely the ravages of mind, body, and psyche that are behind this metamorphosis. No, something else is afoot. Contemporary political theater reflects the times and is more shallow, partisan, and wholly less interesting on numerous fronts. In fact, it’s downright nauseating on many, if not most, occasions, which is why I choose not to watch scripted pols and their flacks recite vacuous talking points on the boob tube. Once upon a time I faithfully tuned in to everything from CNN’s Crossfire—night after night after night—to Sunday morning network fare like This Week with David Brinkley. But no more.

At the tender age of six in 1968—that seminal year—I sported a Nixon campaign button on my little person as Election Day drew near. Very young kids roamed the nearby streets unchaperoned in the old Bronx neighborhood back then. I remember being all by myself—around the corner from home—when a couple of girls festooned in Humphrey-Muskie regalia approached me. They queried mini-me as to why I was wearing a Nixon pin, and then made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. If I turned over my pinback to them, they in turn would give me a bunch of Humphrey-Muskie tabs and some campaign literature. I accepted their offer straightaway, including their two provisos. I would disseminate the materials to adult family and friends and, too, urge them to vote for the Humphrey-Muskie ticket.

What happened next is sadly buried deep in my memory bank. Perhaps hypnosis could unearth what really went down. I can, however, say with absolute confidence that I didn’t move any minds or make any Democratic converts within the family. Still, that little boy sensed the palpable political drama in the ether around—in what were definitely volatile times—and he loved it.

On this day, thirty-seven years ago, Nixon not only got out of Washington town, but also delivered a largely extemporaneous farewell address to his cabinet and the White House staff. It was a captivatingly rambling speech chock full of psychological good stuff, insight, and strangeness from the lips of a disgraced politician in the throes of an emotional breakdown—the ultimate Greek tragedy playing itself out on an American stage. While interminable drama on the current political landscape exists, it’s largely of the lame variety. Regrettably, it's lights out for genuine and compelling political theater.

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