A Lament and a Promise
Do you feel like you’re watching a slow motion global train wreck? The list of ills is so long that it often paralyzes me. And here in the United States, once the bastion of equal rights and, in Lincoln’s words, a country that faced its challenges “with malice towards none and charity to all,” in concept if not in practice, the basic tenets of our democracy are challenged daily by one ill-equipped, amoral promoter who holds more power than any other single person in the world. Climate change is ignored; our Nero fiddles as the entire planet burns. Foreign countries manipulate opinion through what was, not long ago, just a silly little pastime called Facebook. It’s hard to catch a breath. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes remarked that it’s akin to Russian roulette. Virtually every day the man in the Oval Office spins the barrel of a gun and pulls the trigger. And, in our own sanity-preserving way, we breathe a sigh of relief if the consequences are only awful. But one day our luck may run out, and reality grow even more dire than it seems now.
Uplifting thoughts, eh? This is why I have been silent, especially during this holiday season. Where is my merry and bright? My eyes grow wet with tears when I watch the news. I wait for the results of Robert Mueller’s final report and pray that it will not be suppressed, or that the President doesn’t create a national emergency to divert our attention. Nothing from the world of fiction seems far-fetched now. And, frankly, it’s hard to look at history when you suddenly feel that you are being bulldozed by history in the making.
And, then, amidst all the hand-wringing about whether a sitting POTUS can even be charged while in office, comes a story from the pages of The Washington Post – a bit of Presidential precedent from 1872, when Simeon and Emerson were just meeting in the pages of Burying My Dead. On a Georgetown street corner in Washington, D.C., President Grant was arrested for speeding – with his horse and buggy, of course. The story was told in the Sept. 27, 1908, edition of the Washington Evening Star under the headline: “Only Policeman Who Ever Arrested a President.” The police officer was named William H. West. He had fought in the Civil War and, most notably, was African-American.
“I am very sorry, Mr. President, to have to do it,” West remembered saying, “for you are the chief of the nation, and I am nothing but a policeman, but duty is duty, sir, and I will have to place you under arrest.” The President had to go down to the station house. Officers were unsure if he could stand trial so they fined him $20. Ah, for such a straightforward crime.
One of the odd repercussions of this Trump presidency is the plethora of books being written by noted historians whose task of drawing parallels has taken on new urgency. Doris Kearns Goodwin penned Leadership to elucidate the traits of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ in contrast to our daily experiences with the man now residing in the Oval Office. Jon Meacham’s stirring collection of historical anecdotes in The Soul of America eloquently reminds us that we have been here before and, yet, managed to triumph over our darkest impulses.
“History, Truman knew, is not a fairy tale,” writes Meacham in his introduction. “It is more often tragic than comic, full of broken hearts and broken promises, disappointed hopes and dreams delayed. But progress is possible. Hope is sustaining. Fear can be overcome. What follows is the story of how we have endured moments of madness and of injustice, giving the better angels of which Lincoln spoke on the eve of the Civil War a chance to prevail – and how we can again.”
This is my bedtime reading. Not exactly escapism but more soothing, because I am not trying to forget. I am trying to maintain faith.
While I grieve for what feels lost, or, at least, misplaced, I remind myself of a basic truth: difficult times foster profound appreciation for the gifts of our daily lives. I first learned that lesson when caring for my mother in her final years, when death always felt imminent. Sunsets were more spectacular, alone moments with my husband more precious, poems scribbled after midnight more meaningful. I feel that again now as I navigate my seventieth year through these treacherous times. I am so very fortunate to have love in my life in the form of family and friends and even the smiles of strangers. In 2018, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of writing a work that could be shared and appreciated. You have helped make that possible, and for that I thank you.
I hope you, too, can find a bit of kindness in the world around you. Do your best to make these dark days of winter a bit brighter, if only by your own light, and I promise to try to do the same. And get a good night’s sleep. 2019 is upon us, and we have lots of work to do.