Another Bend

1968, when I was in seventh grade, was when I first became interested in politics. It was a tumultuous year. In January, the Tet offensive shook the US narrative of a steady slog toward victory in Vietnam. By March 31, President Lyndon Johnson had decided not to run for re-election, his Presidency broken by Vietnam and civil unrest. Just 4 days later, Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. was assassinated, and American cities exploded in riots.

I wasn’t in America; I was an American child living in Europe. I was an ardent Humphrey supporter; my friend, David C., was for Robert Kennedy. I still felt, at the time, that the cause the US was fighting for in Vietnam was a good one, and that Kennedy was too defeatist. (I’m not sure where that came from; to the best of my recollection, my parents were far more skeptical of the war than I was.)

On the morning of June 5, I got to school and found David in the hall listening to a transistor radio. “Kennedy’s been shot,” he said. For a seventh grader, just becoming aware of current events, it seemed that politics was one long series of assassinations.

Kennedy’s life hung by a thread during that school day. We had English class in the early afternoon, but our teacher, Miss W. was out, so the Physical Education teacher, Mr. B., substituted for her. Mr. B. was bluff, calm, amiable, but quietly authoritative: the kind of personality that the best coaches and police officers have.

At some point during the class, some of us must have been horsing around a little — I don’t remember what we were doing, exactly, only that it wasn’t a big deal. But Mr. B. snapped, which I had never seen him do: he shouted at us, told us to sit down and be quiet. Then he said, almost to himself, “I’m upset enough about what’s happening in my damned country, I just don’t need this.” His use of the word “damned” was as striking as his outburst — striking enough that I remember it nearly half a century later.

Democracies are fragile, and ours keeps being bent, in one way or another, by events and by our most fervent disagreements. Sometimes it seems it is getting bent beyond repair, but it keeps snapping back. You could say it broke during the Civil War, but somehow, after killing over 2% of our own population, we patched things up, however messily, and carried on. At other times, even after horrendous missteps, we have found our more level-headed selves and returned to the uneasy business of getting along. During the seven years after Mr. B.’s outburst, we endured a Democratic convention of tear gas and riots; saw Richard Nixon elected, then re-elected, then resign in the face of overwhelming scandal; and withdrew from Vietnam. Yet by 1976, traveling around the country, as I did, it was clear that the war at home was over. Disagreements didn’t end, of course, but as a nation, we were at least back on speaking terms with each other.

We’re being bent again now.  A sizable minority among us is enraged at our current state: some because their times are genuinely hard, and some, bafflingly, because they think there must be easier answers for a complex, changing world. Through a fluke of electoral politics, that sizable minority has chosen our next President: a shallow, compulsive liar with a thin skin, an admiration for dictators and an intolerance of dissent, who has gained power by fanning the most divisive sentiments we harbor.

I’d like to believe that this is just a phase we’re going through, that this flirtation with authoritarianism will pass, that we will find our own cooler heads, eventually, and show the world that we still know how to make democracy work.

But the world changes, and so do we, as a people. Just because we’ve survived every bend until now doesn’t mean we won’t break this time. Once again, we find ourselves at the abyss. Let’s hope that, as we have before, we find it in ourselves to take a deep breath, step back, and allow the American experiment to endure.