Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Buck Stops Here

The other night, I decided it was well past time to re-read Merle Miller's classic Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman. Trusty neat Dalwhinnie by my side (though Truman always preferred bourbon; he reportedly downed a shot every morning after his famous walks), I settled into the comfy chair and began turning pages, being reminded again what it means to be an American and a Democrat. The hour was late, and the day had been long. After a good hour of reading, my attention began to wander, and my vision didn't seem as sharp as it had been earlier - then I realized that there was someone standing in front of me.

I looked at my unexpected visitor. He didn't look quite ... right. When the lamp was behind him, the light shone, ever so slightly, through him. Still, he looked familiar. The jaunty bow tie, the gray flannel suit, the horn-rimmed glasses, straw boater in hand. No, I thought, it couldn't be ...

"Hello, son," said former President Harry S. Truman - or whatever remains of him.

I gave the glass of Dalwhinnie a glance. No, not even half gone.

I stuttered, "President ... Truman?"

HST: "Well, I am I guess I'm what you'd call his spirit. They have us all in some kind of holding place until Judgment Day. And let me tell you, not even a damn newspaper. They won't tell us a thing about what's going on back here on earth. So, I started ragging on St. Peter and every Archangel I saw, until they finally relented and told me I could come back and talk to one person about politics since I departed. And since I insisted on a Democrat, Peter gave me your address."

Publius: "Well, that's flattering. What do you want to know? You died in ..."

HST: "1972."

P: "Oh, wow. You have some catching up to do. I'll start with broad strokes, and you can ask me to fill in details. Nixon resigned before the Senate could complete impeachment proceedings."

HST: "Damn if I couldn't have seen that coming. So Agnew took over?"

P: "No, Gerald Ford. Agnew had to resign before Nixon did."

HST: "Figures. People want to talk about Democrats being corrupt, but you want to find a real crooked sonofabitch, you have to look for a Republican!"

P: "Anyhow, the next President, in '76, was Jimmy Carter of Georgia, a Democrat."

HST: "I figured it wouldn't take too much longer for a Southern president. But I don't know this Carter. I always figured someone like Dick Russell."

P: "After Carter, Ronald Reagan served two terms."

HST: "God. I thought he lost in '68 badly enough that he'd be stuck in California forever. Country would have been better off with his monkey co-star."

P: "And after him - sir, you remember Prescott Bush?"

HST: "Do I ever! We should have put that Nazi-dealing sonofabitch traitor on Alcatraz!"

P: "Indeed you should have. His son George was elected in '88."

HST: "Why didn't the newspapers raise hell about his family's Nazi dealings?"

P: "You got me there. The New York Times isn't the paper it was in your son-in-law's day. Anyhow, George Bush only served one term, and then we had two terms of a Democrat ..."

HST: "About damned time!"

P: "Bill Clinton of Arkansas. His VP was Al Gore, Jr."

HST: "Al Gore's boy? Damn, I remember when his pappy brought him by the White House - still in kiddie knickers, he was! Arkansas, eh? Good state, could almost be Lower Missouri, with the Ozarks and all. So how did this Clinton fellow do?"

P: "Well, the economy boomed, we had the first balanced budget in decades, and except for a few minor peacekeeping missions, no real war."

HST: "Stop. By my figures, this brings us to 2000, so I want to guess. Al Gore's boy was elected in a landsl ... what's that look on your face?"

P: "No, after a court fight over the election, the Supreme Court handed the White House to George W. Bush, Prescott's grandson, who served two terms."

HST: "What in hell were the American people thinking? Wait til I get back and tell Roosevelt what letting Prescott Bush off the hook got us! Well, I will predict this. How bad did this grandspawn screw things up?"

P: "Pretty badly. After a small bubble boom, the economy tanked, an Arab terrorist who killed 3,000 people in New York and Washington in one day remains uncaptured, and Bush got us into an elective war in Iraq, that we are still stuck in today."

HST: "What do you mean elective war? Hell, this guy killed 3,000 Americans. We didn't lose that many at Pearl Harbor, and by God, I showed them!"

P: "Indeed you did, sir. The trouble is, the attack didn't come from Iraq. It came out of Afghanistan. The government in Iraq was actually hostile to the attackers."

HST: "Horseshit! Even Eisenhower was smart enough not to invade the wrong country! People who've fought in a war - and I did, in my day - know you don't do that stupid stuff. Where the hell were the Democrats in all this?"

P: "Well, a lot of them ran for cover, afraid of looking unpatriotic. There wasn't a lot of opposition to it until near the end of Bush's term."

HST: "More horseshit! If a man doesn't hold his ground in the face of something that stupid, he doesn't need to be in the Congress! Or in politics! Damn sure not in the Democratic Party!"

P: "You aren't the only one who feels that way ..."

HST: "So. Up to 2008. If you tell me they put another damn fool Republican in, I am going straight to God himself when I get back, and tell him to pull the plug on the whole show!"

P: "Not to worry, sir. The winner in '08 was Barack Obama, from Illinois."

HST: "A rock what?"

P: "Barack Obama. The son of a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother. He was Senator from Illinois when he was elected."

HST: "He ... Kenya? You mean we elected a colored President? Hot damn! I told Lyndon Johnson if he'd keep pushing civil rights, good things would happen! So, how is this guy doing so far - I think it's 2010 by now?"

P: "Well, he inherited a serious recession, but managed to hold it steady with a compromise stimulus package he negotiated with the Republicans ..."

HST: "If Bush was all that bad, how do the Republicans control Congress again?"

P: "They don't. There are 59 Democrats in the Senate, and 253 in the House."

HST: "Then why in the HELL is this Obama negotiating with the Republicans?"

P: "It's just his style. He likes to try to do everything by consensus, including with the Republicans."

HST: "Ut-oh. I don't like the sound of this. That bastard Strom Thurmond is gonna tell me 'I told you so.'"

P: "Kinda my thought. Anyhow, Obama did manage to pass a health care reform bill."

HST: "Hot damn! Finally! [If you've never seen a spirit dance, it's quite a sight.] I tried that too, you know. So the good ole U-S-A has a national health care system like Britain's! I can't wait to see Churchill ..."

P: "Not exactly. Republicans had to be accommodated again, even though none of them voted for it in the end. It all has to go through for-profit insurance companies."

HST: "WHAT? He was making deals, and didn't even get votes in exchange?? This guy must be from Illinois. Hell, he sounds more like that chicken-liver Adlai Stevenson every minute! Someone better tell him the only way to win re-election is to fight, or he'll be a one-termer! Anyhow, enough about Washington. I always like to talk local politics when I travel, you find out more that way. I saw on the way in, we're in Alabama. What's going on here this year? I saw that fool Wallace come in a few years back, but he mostly hangs around with Strom, swapping lies."

P: "Well, I would tell you to read my blog ..."

HST: "Excuse me, your what?"

P: "Never mind. We have a Democrat named Sparks, the Agriculture Commissioner, and a state representative named Bentley, the Republican, running for governor.

HST: "Well, that should be a done deal. It's Alabama, and you got a Democrat who's won statewide. Son, you got that funny look again ..."

P: "It's just that a lot of the newspapers say Sparks doesn't have a chance. His issues are supposed to be unpopular, and the Republican is supposed to be a nice guy."

HST: "Damn what the newspapers say. I think you remember a certain picture of me having the laugh of my life at the expense of those bastards at The Chicago Daily Tribune, don't you?

P: "Yes, sir."

HST: "So tell me about this Sparks fellow. A Democrat, kind of in the Big Jim Folsom mold?"

P: "In a lot of ways. He's real folksy, not from a wealthy family or anything. Speaks his mind, plain and simple."

HST: "Hell, I like him already. Any Democrat who puts the little fella first is going to do OK in November. Any one that tries to pussy-foot around with Wall Street is going to get screwed over. Like I said, 'Give the voters a choice between a real Republican and a fake one running as a Democrat, and they'll take the real one every time.' Folsom knew that, that's why I remember he paved all those farm roads, and built new schools out in the country. And when your Alabama Republicans start hollering about "big government" and "socialism," you tell them to either unplug themselves from TVA electricity or shut the hell up. So, with what kind of issues are the damn Republicans trying to distract the voters from their real Wall Street agenda?"

P: "Well, Sparks supports a lottery and bingo to support college scholarships and education, and they're trying to make a big religious issue out of it."

HST: "Figures. Only the Republicans would be opposed to a work force and voters who are educated. Religious? Who are they getting against something that sensible?"

P: "Well, a lot of the Baptist leadership are against him because of it."

HST: "Baptist?? Hell, I'm a Baptist! And there wasn't a thing wrong with those friendly penny-ante poker games I had in the White House! There's not a thing in the Bible that bans a little recreational gambling! Those lying bastards! You wait til I get back up there, I am going to have a meeting with the Man Himself about this ...

At this point, the Presidential spectre flung his straw boater wildly across the room. While it missed me, the tabletop holding my Dalwhinnie wasn't so fortunate. I began to reach over to try to catch it as the hat struck, and became aware that I was in danger of tipping over ... I started to try to right myself, and as I flinched at the possible fall, I blinked ...

And blinked again, as my head jerked upright. Bright sunshine filled the room, and the sound of traffic on the street announced the start of another day. A few ominous signs of stiffness warned of the consequences of sleeping in a chair. What. A. Dream. I looked down and to my right, and saw, with sadness, what looked like about a half-finger's worth of fine Scotch still soaked into the carpet. And just the other side of it, a straw boater.

I confess to being unapologetically Southern WASP in manner and dress. I own a seersucker suit. I own the white buck shoes to go with it. But I have never owned a straw boater.

Until now.