The Kids Are Alright
John Roderick sees his daughter's world getting better — no matter who's in charge.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
My daughter will be almost 10 at the end of Donald Trump’s first term, assuming he chooses to make it that far. Her family are all liberals. She will learn about politics as a dissenter and nonconformist, a member of the opposition. Just as I was.
I grew up in a partisan household in a two-party political world. You were either one side or the other, and we were Democrats. Aside from four years of Jimmy Carter, I lived from infancy to age 18 under a succession of Republican presidents, and watched as that party gradually, and then abruptly, veered to the right.
I was born in 1968, the last days of the Johnson Administration and the height of Vietnam. The Tet Offensive and the assassinations of MLK and RFK were recent news. Students occupied campuses and marched in the streets around the world, boding a youth revolution, and the white South was still resisting integration. Nixon was elected a couple of months after I was born, but George Wallace received 10 million votes running on a segregationist platform. Even adjusted for inflation, I think 1968 trumps 2016 in terms of bad years. The parallels don’t stop there. At the start of ’68, the country had seen seven years of liberal administrations (with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress) that passed a great many pieces of civil rights and social welfare legislation. Even though Obama was hamstrung by a recalcitrant Congress, his tenure felt like a productive time, too.
Old-school liberalism was ascendant in the early part of both 1968 and 2016 and a similar cautious optimism prevailed, like the left might keep setting the agenda for years to come. But just like in 2016, 1968 was all downhill from January 1.
Even at a very young age, I understood that our family was against Nixon, and that people who were for Nixon cared only about themselves. My mom scoffed at him outright, offended by his every word and deed. Nixon offered a big tent to people who were angry about civil rights, about the Voting Rights Act and women’s lib, and infuriated by students protesting Vietnam. Middle America thought the country had gone off the rails, but my mom came from Ohio and thought her own Midwestern people were ignorant racists.
She worked with a bunch of computer programmers here in Seattle, and reported that all the engineers in her department thought Archie Bunker was an American hero. I remember her saying that she kept quiet about her politics during their carpool, because she didn’t want them to antagonize her. Hell, Barry Goldwater’s campaign slogan in 1964 had been “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right” and in ’68, Wallace was all about “Segregation Forever!” Messed up-campaign slogans when you think about it: basically dog-whistles at the volume of a foghorn. Neither Goldwater nor Wallace nor Nixon were anywhere near as coarse as Trump, but in our sweatpants-and-fleece world, the pigs don’t need lipstick.
By 1973, we’d clearly lost the war in Vietnam but everyone was pretending we hadn’t. I remember the Watergate hearings, barely. Everywhere we went, everyone was listening on the radio. My daughter is the exact age today that I was the day the hearings began. Adults didn’t talk directly to children about politics then, but I was paying close attention because my folks were political people and it seemed like family business. Watergate was unprecedentedly bad, maybe the beginning of the end of the republic, but every week TIME magazine was full of pictures of hijackings, the Yom Kippur War, protests, dictators, Soviet tanks and Henry Kissinger, so a level of constant mayhem seemed normal. I grew up assuming the world was crazy and on the verge of holocaust all the time. Besides, it was the hippies making the biggest fuss about Watergate. Even at 5 years old, I knew hippies always made a big deal over nothing.
Spiro Agnew resigned the vice-presidency at the end of ’73 because of unrelated-to-Watergate charges of bribery and tax evasion (!) and then Nixon resigned in the summer of ’74. That was way more insane than anything happening now. Donald Trump may seem like some kind of new level of racist craziness, but George Wallace (literally the man who stood in the schoolhouse door in Alabama blocking integration) ran for president again in ’72 and only quit when he was shot five times on the campaign trail. In 1974 the President of the United States was essentially deposed for burglary. This stuff makes the 2016 election seem like a ballet recital.
Still, it didn’t really make too much of an impact on my young mind. My 5-year-old self studied pictures of Nixon leaving the White House by helicopter, then continued flipping through TIME looking for pictures of Evel Knievel. Everyone tut-tutted about Watergate, but there was an orderly transfer of power and no one seemed to feel unsafe. Nixon was a crook, but the grown-ups were still in charge.
Gerald Ford fumbled from being newly appointed vice president to newly appointed president only eight months later; the only man in history to hold both offices without being elected to either. If there was anything sinister about him, it was only that he was a jock recruited to be a figurehead for evil forces. Mad magazine painted him a dim fool, Chevy Chase portrayed him falling down the stairs, but the fringe conservatives immediately started to insidiously insinuate themselves into government. Ford may have seemed like a benign nonentity, but his administration featured a rogue’s gallery of none other than — get this — George Bush Sr. as CIA Director, Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, and Dick Cheney as Chief of Staff. It’s as if he said, “Look, I’m not going to populate my administration with just any old Washington ghouls; I want to dig up the coffins of only the very smuggest, most leering vampires and put them to work!”
From the Kennedy assassination to Nixon’s resignation was 10 years of political and cultural chaos, racism, riots and assassinations. Now the Ford Administration was a nursery of warlocks! There wasn’t a single aspect of American life unaffected by this decade of total upheaval. The liberal political agenda puttered along through it all, though. The Civil Rights Act was passed. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, supported the Clean Air Act, funded the National Endowment for the Arts, initiated affirmative action and pursued détente with the USSR and China. The Equal Rights Amendment gathered steam and Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. Everyone was wearing chunky sweaters and smoking pot, and Fleetwood Mac made Rumours.
It was only during the Carter administration that the adults around me began to perk up, as the politicians in charge were in some instances personal friends. My dad was pals with Sen. Scoop Jackson and close friends with Brock Adams, who became Carter’s Secretary of Transportation. The establishment Democrats were my people! I went swimming in Brock Adams’ swimming pool! We were the ones who cared about the poor, about peace, about the common man. The caricature of Carter as a big-toothed peanut was deliciously disrespectful and irreverent to 8-year-old me, but I could also see that the peanut was earnestly trying to do good. The newspapers made fun of him for being simple and nice, and it surprised me that being nice was considered a political ding.
During the summer of 1976, our Bicentennial, there was so much patriotic flimflam, so many pictures of the Liberty Bell and Old North Church, it was impossible for a child to be cynical about politics. The summer Olympics were in Montreal and there was a Presidential election to boot! We were the greatest country in the world and had been since the Boston Tea Party! I still have a flag I made that summer hanging on my living-room wall. For some reason, the Soviet Union wanted war and destruction, to take away our homes and make us wear green-gray tunics like Fidel Castro, but it was clear we would prevail because… DEMOCRACY!
But Carter’s presidency was beset with adversity. The energy crisis, inflation, then the Iran hostages all seemed like bad fortune rather than products of mismanagement. The evening news made it seem like every single American was an auto worker, and the Japanese were stealing their jobs by making cars that didn’t openly leak and rust. It was Carter’s fault that our cars sucked, and that disco sucked, and that nuclear power sucked, and all the while Brezhnev sat on his iron throne and laughed at our misfortune while plotting our nuclear demise. Then came the lines at the gas stations, which really sucked, especially on a hot day. Reagan’s corny machismo and simpleminded slogans were so invigorating. It was “Morning in America,” the “Pride Was Back” ™ and we were going to solve our problems, and the world’s problems, not with limp-wristed liberal compromise but with virile and decisive masculine action. As a child in eggplant-colored corduroys, I took all of this personally.
Carter vs. Reagan in the summer of 1980, when I was 11 years old, was the last moment in my childhood when I felt even remotely safe. By then I’d been steeped in overheard politics my whole life. Reagan was caricatured as a greasy raisin with a pompadour; cartoons of him always had a smirk, like he was going to start a war with Russia just to out-cowboy them. Carter’s peanut was still scurrying around ineffectually, like an anxious Mr. Magoo, causing problems by trying to solve them, so Reagan’s smirking raisin started to look pretty sharp.
The night Carter lost, I was newly 12. Watching the returns with my parents, I grew despondent. Reagan was popular in Alaska, where we lived, and we were damn socialist outliers to have supported the incumbent. The specter of nuclear war was already a deep anxiety in my preteen years, and Reagan was rattling his MX missiles from day one. Even though we could see Russia, my parents weren’t overly concerned with Armageddon. They mostly fretted about domestic politics and the Democratic Party mainstays of civil rights and social welfare. There wasn’t much talk of the environment yet, either. If you ate granola, wore hiking boots and didn’t actively pour motor oil down your toilet, you were considered a rabid environmentalist.
Fear of nuclear war is still hard for me to properly understand. I was born into it, and the Soviet Union survived until I was 21. It’s like a prank they played on my entire childhood, like a Truman Show in reverse: “Ha ha, your whole world wasn’t actually on the verge of being vaporized in a sneak attack by heartless Slavs after all! LOL!” I could never grasp how the grown-ups were so blasé about it, how they went to work and watched Magnum, P.I. and cared about who was waiting in line outside Studio 54, when every single day might be our last. I realize now that most grown-ups understood the Cold War to be a Broadway show, and that nuclear annihilation was a dramatic device to sell aircraft carriers, and not actually likely. Nuclear panic was the province of kids, New Wave artists, peace activists, Germans and TV producers, and I was at least three of those things. National politics is always a Plato’s cave: if you’ve never been outside, the shadows are all you can know.
Reagan’s presidency was characterized by malapropisms, hostility to the arts, reckless law-and-order race-baiting, scapegoating of the poor and simpleminded anti-communism. Middle America lapped it up. That was the era when “liberal” became an epithet rather than a point of pride. It was also when I started to get wise to the fact that the establishment left were no saints either. My dad never spoke a bad word about the Democrats, but he knew where the bodies were buried and the shovels were kept. As I learned my history, it was less and less a binary world for me. I was becoming a radical, a peacenik and an environmentalist, and the Democratic Party seemed like people you wouldn’t accept a ride from. All the Tip O’Neills and Ted Kennedys seemed corrupt as hell, maybe even alcoholic date-rapers, but nowhere near as straight-up evil as James Watt and Antonin Scalia, who wanted to build pipelines through Yellowstone and murder gynecologists. I was learning to agitate for world revolution, but I knew enough to support the Democratic Party at the same time.
Laissez-faire capitalists and the patrician establishment understood Reagan’s cowboy act for what it was: bread and circuses for anti-communist ding-a-lings, a diversionary masquerade while they dismantled the regulatory system that had barely kept bankers, arms dealers and oilmen in check. It was a dark time for the left, but it felt swashbuckling because a movie star was in charge. Reagan was the embodiment of the Republican idea: virile, paternal, strict, religious without being righteous, fun without being funny, your ideal grandfather presiding over Thanksgiving dinner. I turned 18 during his second term and my childhood was over with a whimper. I went into adulthood more convinced than ever that the natural condition of the presidency was to be Republican, to teach creationism in Pennsylvania schools and put handguns in purses nationwide. Sadly, there were far worse presidents to come, and some of the same warlocks returned. But this magazine isn’t called Seattle’s Adult, so I’ll leave it at that.
Watching my 5-year-old overhear the first major election of her life, as I’d done when Nixon beat McGovern in 1972, was fascinating. She has no idea that a woman has never been president. Why should she? She’s from a leftist family and goes to school in a multicultural kindergarten bubble in a progressive enclave within a liberal metropolis, where overt racism and sexism have yet to intrude into her world. She knows the smiling blonde lady didn’t win and the weird orange hobgoblin did, but she has no premonitions of dread. Two months ago, she got a generous laugh from any adult when she gave her “Trump is bad!” dance performance. Once she started getting only strained grimaces, she mostly dropped it from her repertoire.
When I think about my daughter’s future, I remember the crazy politics of my entire life. Trump will be my 10th president, and this was my 13th election cycle, and though it feels like politics has never been more bizarre, it’s absolutely been true that the arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice. Despite years of Republican dominance, the march of liberal progress has been the one constant of my political life. Conservatives can move the ball back down the field, but their anxiety is a product of vaguely recognizing that the whole field is moving forward. The world is better now than it was in 1968, and will keep getting better no matter who’s in charge.
That’s my daughter’s future.John Roderick is the singer and songwriter responsible for the Seattle band The Long Winters, and the co-host of the Roderick on the Line podcast. He tweets @JohnRoderick.