Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


There are likely far better books on the effects of war than than The Assault, by the Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch, but if there are, I don’t know of them; and if I’ve read them, they don’t stay with me like that great novel. When a man is murdered one night on a quiet street in Holland during the Nazi occupation, the effects of that murder simply keep unfolding—for years and years after the event itself. Just who collaborated and who didn’t—and why or why not—take lifetimes to understand.

A book like Murder in Amsterdam quite firmly links the World War II past of the Netherlands into the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and the difficulties Holland (and all of Europe) is having with Middle Eastern immigration.

I’m just trying to establish what’s obvious. Wars have immense consequences. Years and years ago—when I was just a kid—I used to see a shaking man walk up the street almost daily. His spasms were involuntary, and simply watching him the way I did made me very uncomfortable. I asked my father what was wrong with him, and my father—and WWII vet—said not to make fun of him. The man had shell shock, he said, from the Great War.

In my lifetime, I have been blessed to hear literally dozens and dozens of stories of Nazi Resistance fighters, stories of immense and selfless heroism. But what the story-tellers share is an almost perverse inability to leave that whole world behind, psychologically. No matter whether the stories are never told or told over and over again, the sheer extremity of the war experience, it immense dangers and the proximity of death, the clear lines between friend and enemy and victory and defeat—all of that makes the ordinariness of peacetime feel boring, humdrum. War, despite its horrors and maybe even because of them, is simply vastly more exciting.

I suppose it’s not just war—it’s true of extremes in general. I once had a friend, a priest, who suffered from debilitating nerve disease. He told me he simply had to quit the priesthood because he could feel in himself a growing inability to listen to parishoners go on and on about their hangnails when his own pain made it impossible for him to sit straight or sleep through the night.

This year’s immensely fascinating Presidential sweepstakes is now down to three. Unless some third party candidate suddenly appears (and who knows?—this year) we’re left with McCain, Obama, and Clinton.

I stood with the Obama folks on the night of the Iowa caucuses and haven’t changed since. But should he lose to Clinton, the decision isn’t so clear.

Just yesterday, polls showed that President Bush’s approval rating was an abysmal 30%. His only comfort was that the Congress came in at 22%. Both figures are down 4% in just the last month. The American public is simply tired of “politics as usual,” it seems. Just exactly what “politics as usual” is, however, is not so clear.

What is clear is that both Obama and McCain represent something new, a pair of individuals who are not connected at the hip to party machinery. By my estimation, it’s a blessing for McCain that he’s hated among those grinch-like right-wing talk show hosts (I listened to them late last night, in fact). His record of working for change rather than the party is well documented by bill titles: McCain/Feingold, for instance. McCain, some say, is a nationalist, not an idealist. Well, hallelujah.

By my estimation, it’s lunacy for Hillary to run as a 35-year veteran and at the same time an agent of change. But she does. No matter. I’ll find it difficult to vote for Hillary because of her husband. I just flat-out like him better when he lines up with Bush I and Jimmy Carter and works to alleviate world problems. The thought of him hanging around the White House makes me shivver. I just hate that pointed finger of his.

McCain’s war-hero status is exemplary, and he’s a national treasure. The rap on him is that he can be irascible, even mean. He obviously cares very little about the economy—he’s said as much. Furthermore, his immense attraction lies in his ability to speak powerfully to other countries; domestic issues simply aren't as interesting to him. There’s no question.
I wonder sometimes whether I see in him the same kind of psychic impatience that I've seen in other war heroes, especially those who suffered deeply—a kind of impatience with ordinary life, an inability to comfort those whose problems pale when contrasted to their own history of horrors or sadness. I guess I wonder whether the pain McCain suffered as a prisoner of war for five years has made it hard for him to empathize with those whose plight is absolutely nothing like that he went through. I wonder whether it’s become difficult for him to do what Bill Clinton used to do , it seemed, better than anyone—convince others that “he felt their pain.”

But if I’m right, that problem may not be a reason not to vote for him. There is no doubt at all that those five years in a Viet Cong prison also strengthened his resolve and purpose. He’s learned to reach back for resources within his own soul that many of us have never recognized in ourselves. Those five years are simply part of the way he negotiates life itself.

Should Obama fail, the choice for me will be difficult because there’s so much to respect about John McCain.

This morning, after all this speculating, I’m still happy for one thing—that I’ve got a choice, a roll to play, that I’m part of what really does remain one of humanity’s most incredible experiments—democracy. I’m thankful I have the right to vote, even if having to think the whole business through requires some work, some diligence, some thought, some weighing of alternatives.

1 comment:

jscoby said...

Today was the KS Republican caucus. I participated because that's how the process works. You cast your vote, you go home, eat lunch, and carry on. For the record, I cast my lot for a man who isn't even in line for the long shot. But today, I'm thankful that I'm an undecided American. Because democracy in America is still safer than it is in Kenya.