Saturday, September 19, 2009

Can't We All Just Get Along?

President Obama’s speech to school children on September 8 and his remarks to a joint session of Congress on September 9 regarding health care reform have inspired scores of strange and unenlightened remarks from the House floor, on blogs, on community comment boards, and for me . . . in the dentist’s waiting room. These remarks all have something in common: they are a reflection of U.S. politics as usual. Here’s what I mean:

A few days ago I drove my daughter’s friend, Emily, to the dentist to have her wisdom teeth pulled; I had brought a friend’s crime-fiction manuscript along with me to edit while I waited for Emily, knowing she might be awhile. When I sat down near a coffee table full of magazines, I noticed a recent Newsweek on the top of the stack with a baby’s photo on the cover and the headline, “Is Your Baby Racist?” spread across the top. I rolled my eyes at the dramatics of magazine journalism, and went to work on my friend’s manuscript with my green pen.

I’d read through maybe eight pages when a man in his fifties wearing a blue cap and dusty work clothes sat across the table from me. Even before he sat down he started cataloging the selection of magazines before him, directing his comments to me, so I looked up just long enough to acknowledge him before turning back to my work.

But he was not so easily appeased and continued our conversation without me, saying in a loudish voice, “You gotta love Newsweek.” Then, “Is My Baby Racist?” Slurpy laugh. “Well, some people would say my baby probably is because I listen to Rush Limbaugh every afternoon.” Another slurpy laugh.

I glanced up again, to be polite, and he sort of smile-chuckled at me—which is when I noticed he had an upper tooth missing. Probably why he came to Emily’s dentist, I thought.

Again, I turned back to my friend’s manuscript, trying not to engage this man about whom I’d already made some instant judgments like uneducated, narrow-minded, ultra-conservative. And who, it seemed, was relentless in his pursuit of an audience. Preferably one that agreed with him.

I kept working, ignoring his chatter.

So he threw out his piece de resistance: “Oh, here we go,” he said and picked up another magazine with a photo of Ted Kennedy as a young man on the front. He held it up to me. “What I want to know is how well he could swim with all the windows rolled up and the doors locked.” I didn’t get his meaning exactly, but I understood the implication all too well.

I stared at him for a second. “You mean Chappaquiddick?” I said.

“Yeah, Chappaquiddick. He couldn’t swim any better than his brother . . . but I guess his brother saved all those men in his boat.”

I raised an eyebrow and continued to stare without saying a word, not knowing if he wanted me to agree or if he was trying to start something. He didn’t say anything either, and I wondered if he’d assumed something about me, too.

The nurse called his name before I had the chance to confess my thoughts, so he walked out as happy as he’d walked in. Slurpy laugh, still chattering away until he disappeared behind a door.

His ad hominem comments pushed my mind back to my girlhood in Kansas, when the iconic stories of the Kennedy family always had a seamy bent, when political discussions degenerated too quickly into choosing up sides, with everyone jumping into their traditional camps like the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Even on the ride home I couldn't purge my mind of this chatty, opinionated man with the chip on his shoulder. I had also chosen sides, though, whichever one he wasn’t on; I recoiled at what I considered to be his ignorant opinions, and refused to see him as a person worth listening to. I think he left the dentist’s office believing I agreed with him because, after all, we’re both from the same red state, aren’t we?

My maternal grandparents didn’t agree on politics; Grandma is a democrat and Grandpa was a republican. They’d been married for nearly 70 years before my grandfather died, and I never heard them argue about anything as silly as platforms. They’d say their piece, and be done with it. Back to work.

My Utah friends and I have differing opinions about President Obama’s health care plan: those who are chronically ill are hopeful and positive and eager for change in the current system, regardless of which party brings it about. Those who are more conservative but don’t currently have health insurance are softening toward President Obama’s ideas, waiting with a jot of skepticism to see what happens. They’re worried about what the public option will lead to if it ends up in the bill, and they make occasional references to Socialism and FDR.

I’m generally supportive of the reform versions I’ve seen and am willing to give President Obama a chance, as are many others in my circle. Still, there are those who can only see the Hatfields and the McCoys and so line up with their traditional party. End of discussion.

But the strangers who call into Talk of the Nation on NPR and my students and friends (conservative and liberal) and that random woman interviewed on the six o’clock news and me and my family agree on one thing: we are sick of the fighting between political parties. We’re sick of the name-calling and the nose-pulling and the eye-gouging and the decades of stalemate.

And we'd all like to get out of the waiting room.

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