My first political memory is strangely vivid. It was November of 1992, and my dad was driving me to Kindergarten. The radio announcer, in a tone as soggy as the weather, discussed Bill Clinton’s recent election.
“Bill Clinton is stupid!” I proclaimed, feet kicking the dashboard.
“Don’t say that,” my dad replied. “He’s the President now, so we have to respect him.”
My memory goes blank after that, so I don’t know how I responded. But this memory’s worth dwelling on for a couple reasons.
First, it shows that I somehow got it in my six-year old head that Bill Clinton was “stupid.” Second, it shows I could not have gotten this idea from either of my parents. My dad stopped me from calling him stupid. As for my mom, those who’ve met her know that calling a politician “stupid” is . . . out of character.1
So how did I learn that Bill Clinton was stupid? It must have seeped in from my culture, a part of the atmosphere I imbibed without realizing it. Like the blue of the sky and the green of the grass, the badness of Bill Clinton was a fact of life.
A couple years later, my grandpa bought me a presidential encyclopedia. Each president had a detailed article about his life and administration, complete with everything from White House portraits to political cartoons. I read and re-read that book too many times to count.2 Each time I read it, the same narrative attached.
The Republican pages glowed with an aura of virtue. Whether they were great like Lincoln, cool like Teddy Roosevelt, or neglected like Calvin Coolidge,3 I felt a kinship. That their success was mine to claim, and their failures mine to explain away. They were my people.
The Democrat pages had a pall. FDR seemed suspicious, with his glasses and cigars and wheelchair. What was he up to? Even the wholesome ones like Jimmy Carter raised my eyebrow. Sure he had that aw-shucks smile and that peanut farm and he taught Sunday School. But if he was really so trustworthy, why would he become a Democrat?
The snippets I overheard about Monica Lewinsky confirmed my suspicions. I was too young to know the full story, but I did know that a dress had something to do with it. A dress that was stained with…something. Tartar sauce, maybe? Also, the word is played an important role. Clinton didn’t know what it meant, or he used it the wrong way. Possibly to stain that dress. Anyway, the point was that Clinton was a liar and an unrepentant violator of one of the Commandments–the Ninth maybe?–and unfit to be president.
If you had pressed me back then, that would have been the core difference between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans were the people I trusted–the sort who preached in my church and led the ministries my parents supported. Bald eagles and church steeples and picnics in the park after Sunday School. Democrats were everything against that–greedy, manipulative, and fleshly. They smoked cigars and hid their wheelchairs and stained womens’ dresses. And they probably hated picnics.
Of course, none of this really affected me back then. For one thing, John Elway and ninja turtles and fruit roll-ups occupied too much of my brain to worry about Bill Clinton.
For another thing, I spent most of my boyhood avoiding politics as much as possible.
But that’s a story for next time….
1 Once when I was a kid, my mom was in a uniquely bad mood, and was driving my dad and uncle. A car cut her off. She shook her fist at the driver and yelled, “Rats on you, buddy!” My dad and uncle laughed, asking where she came up with the phrase “rats on you.” My mom replied that rats were the ickiest thing she could think of. This story tells you everything you need to know about my mother.
2 Yes, I was homeschooled. Why do you ask?
3 Calvin Coolidge is my favorite president. I have a bobblehead of him in my office that my wife bought me for Christmas. Oh, and did I mention I was homeschooled?
Photo by Jonathan