Saturday, January 17, 2009

Inaugural Memory

This piece is dedicated to my parents, especially to my Dad, who worked tirelessly to help turn Virginia blue during the recent election.

In November 1980 I learned “Republican” was a dirty word. The word barely passed my lips without some amount of stuttering and shuddering. My parents were civil rights lawyers in my native Washington, D.C., interested and at times active in politics, and they were liberals. That year Republican Ronald Reagan soundly defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter in the Presidential election. I don't remember my parents feeling pinched by the high energy prices, run-away inflation, or high interest rates; if they were affected by those economic conditions that helped to bring down the Carter administration after only one term, they never said as much. But, while I added words like "landslide" to my vocabulary during Election Night in November and tried to make sense of all of the numbers and red and blue representations of the United States on the television set, my parents were submerged in hushed disappointment. I absorbed their views and would deftly rattle them off as my own. For a newspaper assignment in my second-grade class that school year, my own self-published, single-edition manifesto included headlines such as, "Is Ronald Reagan Messing up the USA?", found alongside the feature, "Money Doesn't Grow on Trees, So You Better Start Saving for College Now."

My father often took us to the Mall to visit the monuments and museums and to attend events like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. And, I know both of my parents attended political events, marches and protests. But, imagine my surprise when my father informed my sister, Dina, two years my senior, and I that we would be spending Reagan's Inauguration Day on January 21, 1981, lining the sides of the Inaugural Parade downtown.

I can't remember if my father suggested that we make posters or if we took the initiative to do so ourselves, but somehow signs materialized. Rather than construct them with paper or poster board, we made them out of an art set – one with hard white plastic boards with grooves into which colored bits could be pegged and then dismantled and used again. My parents were early conservationists and probably thought that using an entire piece of poster board for a non-school project would be wasteful. Plus, I can't imagine they would have wanted the signs lingering for days after, reminding them of the celebration of Reagan's election.

In light of my parents', and consequently our disappointment, Dina and I were plotting creations of an unpleasant and a contentious sort, but my father would not permit this. So, my sister and I each endeavored to produce an appropriately tame placard in honor of the day's event, which meant making nothing too favorable towards Reagan, but nothing malicious either. My sister's was patriotic and a simple testament to the process of our democracy: an American flag. Mine was a portrait of Ronald Reagan, although I concede now that it may not have been recognizable as such. It was, at the very least, a guy with black hair. Beneath Reagan's head, I had written, "He's nice". Without pause, nodding her head with contempt, my sister scoffed, "He's nice?!?! Humph!" To her, I was committing high treason against our family and our long-held political views. Truth be told, I didn't actually know if he was nice or not. Given the number of poor and mentally ill people who subsequently suffered under his administration's policies, I would have to say that niceness was probably not chief among his personal attributes. But at the time, it was the most positive and bland statement I could think to peg with some sincerity onto my white board. He may well have been a Republican who would ruin our country, but he looked like a nice guy. Despite my sister's protest, my Dad did not impose editorial control over my statement. I think he recognized that it was the best I could do under the circumstances.

On the Metro ride downtown, feeling like a hypocrite, I hid my sign beneath my jacket, turning the board so that the picture and offending slogan were face down, and held it against me. Once at the parade, however, I got caught up in jubilation of the moment—the marching bands, the happy people, the sense of being part of a historic moment—and felt emboldened to shed my tentativeness. It was a warm day, the warmest day, in fact, on record for a January Inauguration at a whopping fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit, which probably also helped me to transcend my feelings of apprehension. As I sat upon my father's shoulders, waving a little American flag in one hand, I held my sign aloft with the other. We had secured a spot among the spectators close enough to be a stone's throw from the parade participants, including Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who rode openly in their vehicle. As their motorcade passed us, I saw our new President pause his mechanical arm waving long enough to point my sister and me out to the First Lady, and then she looked over and they waved just to us. I imagined him saying, "Look at those sweet little girls with their homemade signs, Nancy. The one on her father's shoulders thinks I'm nice! How wonderful!" And, because of that moment, my shame abated, my statement of betrayal had been worth it and perhaps even confirmed. I realize now that he probably did not notice us in particular, but for that day, I had fallen victim to the parade's pageantry and hoopla. I felt as hopeful as a seven-year old Democrat could about the incoming president.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, my father's enthusiasm to attend this particular inauguration and his discouragement of displaying any negativity also encouraged me to enjoy it. In retrospect, it seems incongruous that he would have taken us, but not uncharacteristic of him. Perhaps my father wanted to reject the role of the sore loser and give the guy a fresh start. To this day, he often remarks upon Reagan's skill as a politician despite disagreeing with his political views and policies. Or, maybe, he wanted to spend a day off from work with his children, taking advantage of this unique DC-based excursion that allowed us to participate in an American tradition, the Inaugural Parade, as a spectacle of our democracy rather than as an opportunity to heckle or pass judgment upon the new Republican administration. Perhaps, he gathered hope in the innocence, wonder, and openness of his children to help ease anxiety about a potentially devastating presidency. He might say it was a combination of all of the above. Whatever his reasons were, I know that although he relishes debate, he strives to approach disagreement respectfully with a rejection of pettiness and bitterness, and to emphasize optimism and graciousness in defeat over bitterness and acrimony. On that day, he taught us to do the same. Even though Republican was a dirty word, it was okay for me to say Reagan is nice.

I live in Oakland, California now. My own young children knew the 2008 presidential candidates’ names and lived through the election night tension alongside us just as my sister and I did with our parents in 1980, the difference being that our candidate won this time. I am sad we won’t be in DC to take our kids, unambiguously joyous signs (and grandparents) in tow, to Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrate the inauguration of “Rock-O-Bama.” My hope is that in our place, some Republican dad will put aside politics and bring his little girl to herald the new Democratic President-elect and for that moment, she’ll leave behind her family’s misgivings and allow herself to hope.

(photo by flickr user Travlr)


Susan said...

Wow, I am very impressed. This was a great piece.

Grace said...

I love this Rachel. It's exactly the attitude we should all have--to celebrate and teach our children to embrace democracy, patriotism (not nationalism), togetherness despite differing opinions. Today's partisan politics are so negative and divisive; Ed gave you a wonderful gift and I'm glad you shared it. Very uplifting. -Grace