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The Great Election Escape


by Gary Gordon

A tale of how the author tried to escape from the presidential election coverage November 7, 2000, by going to the desert, and discovers that the Cosmic Joke is on him.

There is a scene at the end of Planet of the Apes-you know the one: Charlton Heston, barechested on horseback, weapon slung over his shoulder, leading his mute woman, dismounts and falls, overcome, to his knees and begins pounding on the sand as the camera reveals the famous crown of the Statue of Liberty in the foreground above him. He starts shouting "Damn you, you fools, you've finally done it!" as we see a leaning, half-buried statue... The human race finally blew itself to pieces in an atomic war and Heston, gone from Earth when it happened, has returned to discover this awful truth.

I was not thinking at all about that movie as I decided the weekend before the election to go to the desert to unplug, to escape the incessant babble that passes for commentary and analysis on the radio, TV and newspapers. The plan was this: I would go to the desert and not listen to anything but my CDs and the wind, not watch any TV, not read any papers, not talk to anyone, until the election was over. For two days, I would play my guitar and walk around Joshua Tree National Park, and at night I would read Stephen Jay Gould essays or the Kinky Friedman novel I'd been meaning to get to, and look at the stars.

It had been a long time building, listening to preposterous news coverage: Mediocrity begets mediocrity.

The last straw was the coverage of the news about Bush's drunk driving arrest. Not the arrest itself. The absence of such an arrest would've been the surprise. No, it was the coverage. Within twelve hours of the report, the emphasis had shifted from the facts of the story-an actual arrest record-- to the media questioning each other as to whether or not it was a story. Then, again within less than 24 hours, the emphasis was on whether or not Gore's campaign had anything to do with the release of the information and endless discussion about the "timing" of this news.

What happened to the story? Beats me. A candidate positing that character is the issue turns out to have an arrest record for behaving in a distinctly unfatherly, un-family values way and suddenly the question is whether or not it's a story and suddenly the question is where it came from?

Is this the same media that dogged Clinton about allegations that turned out to be baseless and never really did cover where those stories came from?

I voted absentee and hit the road at 1:30pm, desert-bound, listening to KNX just long enough to hear the traffic reports. By 2pm I was passing Pasedena and off went the radio and the facile analysis of analysis of analysis-- a loop of the Walrus and The Carpenter would have more meaning. Into the cassette player went Creedence Clearwater Revival. And when I arrived at the house near Twentynine Palms, I broke out the CD player and began listening to The Essential Johnny Cash, 1955-1983.

"Ten years ago on a cold dark night," sings Johnny Cash and I instantly try to remember ten years ago. While I imagine most people in the country are gathered around the election returns, I am recalling the past... I might've been living in Gainesville, Florida. I might've been seeing a woman named Janet. I might've been planning to move to L.A. I might've been writing a song called "He's Prayin' At The Church of Saint John Wayne" about Bush Sr., on the verge of his leading us into war.

Sometime tonight or tomorrow morning, I figure, as history marches on without me, it will be clear who won. And as several of us have argued at our weekly Sunday gathering at the Main Street Farmer's Market in Santa Monica, what difference does it make? We've argued the economics, we've argued the history of Supreme Court appointments; we were arguing this stuff as the media was saying no one was interested. It got vicious. Gore supporters and Nader supporters quit being civil. Battlelines were drawn. The one table became two. It reminded me of arguments about Vietnam.

The Essential Johnny Cash is a history lesson in itself. He was there at the beginning of rock n roll, he wrote often in the folk tradition of Woody Guthrie and Jimmy Rogers. He wrote compassionately about prisoners and entertained in prisons. He violated country music traditions as often as he started them, singing socially conscious songs like The Ballad of Ira Hayes and recording with the likes of Bob Dylan-- in the 60s! He even spoke out against the Vietnam War.

As I listen to this Johnny Cash collection, I think about what used to define country music: it was an integrity of its artists combined with a type of sound production and an especially strong emphasis on time and place-- and whereas integrity is always possible and sound production is a matter of taste and craft and is in many respects reproducible, the time and the place that made country music what it was don't exist anymore. The working man and culture documented and referenced and celebrated by Cash and Guthrie and Haggard and so many others is no longer the subject of modern country music and may not exist: the train is gone; the prison is now an industry to be embraced, not condemned; and wild, crazy passion has been supplanted with the thoroughness of love and relationships as an expression of successful therapy. The younger demographic doesn't want to hear songs about work (the subject of decades of folk and country songs) and the more mature demographic prefers songs about working on oneself. ("If I was from Mars and you were from Venus, would you still go honky tonkin' with me?" is not a likely title.)

And you might think I'm stretching this a bit, but the disappearance of the roots of what made up great country music (and great rock n roll, which was less about working people and more about high schoolers discovering puberty and having fun with it) is probably related to the disappearance of depth on our national political scene.

I don't know if it's the media or the media-doggers like Bennett and Lieberman, or the soul-less corporate managers or the psuedo-bible thumpers like Prager and Schlesinger or what the hell it is, but finding depth seems to be increasingly difficult. How anyone familiar with Humphrey, McGovern, Bayh, Harris, Church or a dozen other Senators could actually believe that Gore was worth a dime is beyond me; and how anyone familiar with Nixon, Dirkson, Goldwater, Romney, Percy, Javits, or a dozen others could actually believe that Bush is worth a nickel is beyond me. Instead, it's become Hollywood Squares Politics: Gore to block. Or Bush to block. Take your pick.

What has happened to our definitions of accomplishment? of dues? of character? of life? How Bush Sr. could be compared favorably as similar to Eisenhower or Clinton as similar to Kennedy also escapes me.

But I'm also at a loss to explain the popularity of Limp Bizkit and Adam Sandler. So maybe Bush and Gore are great and I am ridiculous for wanting to get away from what is actually tremendously insightful analysis. Maybe when Gore speaks slowly, condescendingly and with hesitating certainty, he's actually being brilliant. And maybe when Bush speaks so convolutedly and ungrammatically that he can't even be effectively quoted or accurately mimicked, he's actually being more profound than Yoda. When Johnny Cash sings about prison it's believable. Garth? I trust him when he sings about therapy.

When Gore or Bush talk about anything-- ANYTHING-- I just don't believe it. I don't think I'd even believe it if they said they were politicians. Where is the evidence?

And when Sam and Cokie and Wolf and Tim talk about anything, I get sick over the lack of follow-up questions and the arrogance and the groveling and wonder, what happened to journalism?

The first presidential race I really remember was 1964. I was 12. Johnson was an integrationist running also as a peace candidate; Goldwater was racist running as a nuclear war candidate. That's the way I understood it then. I didn't realize each man was much more complex than that, or that we were already engaged in a war from which we have yet to recover. But it's really okay that that's the way I understood it: I was 12.

The first presidential race I really participated in was 1972. It was my first vote, there was a genuine anti-war candidate, George McGovern, who had achieved the nomination of his party and it felt right and just to devote much of my sophomore and a portion of my junior year in college to trying to get him elected. When the effort failed, Nixon 60%, McGovern 40%, I helped start an alternative campus paper to try to continue the effort. Winning the presidency was not as important as ending the war. Losing the presidency did not mean the war had to continue indefinitely.

The great issues of my parents generation seemed to attach to were the Depression, the war against Japan and Germany, and the further stabilizing of the middle class through securing the opportunities of jobs, home ownership, improved infrastructure and public education. They survived the Depression, defeated the enemy, built the suburbs and interstate highways, colleges and schools, and started the space program.

The great issues of my generation seemed to attach to were the injustice of Jim Crow and segregation and the violation that was the Vietnam War. A fight for justice and against hypocrisy seemed to be the themes beneath the events that triggered mass activism.

In each case, leaders rose to respond: Eisenhower and Kennedy and Stevenson and Nixon and Humphrey and McGovern and Wallace all knew that government, having coordinated the war victory, could win various peace victories.

But there was another great issue of my generation that has bled into this current time, one that I was only barely aware of when I was young, and one that I can say, as political as I was, I only glimpsed twenty years ago when Reagan was elected.

When I was in grade school the teacher required us, each morning, to read from the Bible. Each day a different student had to read a selection of their own choosing, explain to the teacher why they chose it, and then the class would read it aloud together.

One day I forgot it was my turn. The teacher called on me. I was not as at ease standing in front of people as I am now, so awkward and nervous and unprepared, I took the Bible, opened it randomly and read the first two or three paragraphs I saw. Now if I was a comic or pundit or preacher or rabbi I would now tell you what I read in order to illustrate a point, but the truth is, I don't know what I read. All I remember is the teacher asking if I knew the meaning of one of the words I read and I had to do what we who have been teachers call a context guess. It was stupid and pathetic and embarrassing and if anything it made me hate the Bible and my teacher and so served no positive educational purpose. Or did it? (As Abbie used to say when the military quashed free speech and peace rallies on campuses, "Hey, we're gettin' an education now.")

Shortly after that, the Supreme Court spoke and the teacher ended the practice and I felt I had enjoyed a small victory.

What I didn't know was that the 1962 Supreme Court decision, along with the creation of Social Security, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, and the 1964 and 1965 Voting and Civil Rights Acts would become the prime impetus for the reorganization of the Republican party after Goldwater's stunning defeat and would come back in force in 1980 and since such that today the great issues of our time include school vouchers and the privatization of Social Security.

It turns out that the immorality they see, combined with their furious dislike of non-White races, would all be fixed if God, who is already everywhere, was allowed in the classroom, and as long as the law says they can't preach their drivel under the guise of a higher authority, they'll do whatever they can to build private schools and let the public schools go to waste.

The hypocrisies involved here are so vast as to make one simply reach for an R. Crumb comic and giggle.

But it is sad, too, that the legacy of two great eras that saw the defeat of the Nazis, the overthrow of legal segregation, and the ending of an unjust war, is now a battle over the worth of public education and the role of our government helping us secure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by administering the social security system so that we are not fodder for the all-too-foolish decisions of robber barons and their inept dot-com offspring.

It was with this backdrop, bible-thumper v. bible-thumper, that this election occurred. And as it was sons of political fathers, if the Bible were a document of American History, we would perhaps see it as a biblical contest (wondering as we proceed, perhaps, if Dubya stole Jeb's birthright from a blind father).

This was an election where two sons ran for the presidency; one son wanting to please his dad and help his dad seek revenge (a very tribal and biblical notion) and one son wanting to show his (deceased) dad that through neverending compromise one can stay in politics instead of being driven out.

My favorite story from the Bible, the story I would read now if I were required, is the story of Abraham, particularly the part when he breaks his father's idols. This story isn't mentioned too often in conjunction with the Ten Commandments, which it predates. It's the story of a son who learns of a foolish belief and declares his opposition to it. In 2000, neither son chose to exercise this option. One chose to obey the Ten Commandments, having never opposed his dad's foolish beliefs (in the CIA, covert illegal warfare, deception, laissez faire capitalism and corporate welfare etc.), and the other chose foolish beliefs and opposed his dad, who had principles, who had opposed the Vietnam War.

So my post-election analysis, as the Byrds sing I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician and He Was A Friend of Mine, is that whoever won last night is not Abraham, and will not lead us anywhere worth going.

"Ten years ago on a cold dark night..." Janet and I walked over to the protest against the Gulf War at the Federal Building. A vigil. A long time ago.

On Wednesday morning, Nov. 8, I figured the world had changed irrevocably. And probably peacefully. The Marines at the base nearby did not appear to have mobilized for deployment. There was no middle-of-the-night activity. Panama, Grenada, and L.A. appear safe from invasion.

More likely, Bush or Gore has been elected president and the pundits are weighing in with why. And I begin the morning listening to a collection of Byrds songs opening with Mr. Tambourine Man and now playing Hey Mr. Spaceman.

There is very little profound to say about the day after an election if you've chosen not to know who won. But then I doubt there's much profound to say with this election even if you do know.

On Wednesday night I thought about how I'd spent the whole day not learning who won the election, and realized it was getting wearisome. As I drove thru town on the way to Joshua Tree National Park, I made sure not to glance at newspaper stands. When I approached the Ranger station to pay the entry fee I silently prayed that he not say something innocent, like, "wow, it sure was a squeaker, but so-and-so pulled it out." At Key's View and Cap Rock and Ryan's Mountain and Jumbo Rocks I hoped I would not hear any hikers and sightseers talking about it, or hear a car radio blaring news headlines. When I filled up the gas tank I had to hope the guy near me wouldn't strike up a conversation, or turn on his radio. When the UPS guy came to the door with a package for someone who doesn't live here anymore I had to hope he'd keep his mouth shut. And when I checked messages on my answering machine, I had to cut off anyone who sounded like they're about to spill the beans.

I tried to gauge the two hikers I passed on the trail at Ryan's Mountain: when they said hello, did it sound like "hello, we're depressed about what happened yesterday"? or did it sound like "hello, we're pretty darn happy about yesterday's results"? It was such a noncommittal hello. Maybe what they were really saying was "hello".

It is said that most people don't follow this stuff. Here I am, working extra hard to not know what happened, and maybe I don't have to work this hard. I've always wondered how people don't know what's going on. Don't they see headlines? Maybe not. Don't they hear the radio news? Maybe not. Don't they hear people talking? Maybe not. Maybe it's not hard to not know what's going on.

I think of a test. Maybe I should drive into town tonight, to a bar, and see if I hear anyone talking about the election. Maybe no one is. Maybe it's come and gone and the big discussion is what's going to happen this weekend in college or professional football. I am tempted to try this test. Plus, I'm starting to go batty in the house. I've read several Gould essays, written a new song, listened to all the CDs I brought-- but that was not the purpose of this mission. This mission was to escape the knowledge and the pundits and their awful analysis. If I go into town, to a bar or coffeehouse, I'll hear the news, I know it. And the mission will be ruined. Maybe it's time to crack that Kinky Friedman book.

Driving around and walking around Joshua Tree, one is tempted to find patterns. The boulders looks as if they've been placed atop one another, some entertainingly perilously, such as at Cap Rock, where the brim of the cap is a horizontal boulder perched precipitously off-center on the round body of the cap. The horrifying notion occurs that someone who works for Disney will someday pass through here and decide to build a replica.

The walking trail near Cap Rock is punctuated with signs describing desert survival. Plants close to the boulders can cluster because rain, when it happens, runs off the boulders and pools briefly or goes right to the plants. Plants in the more open areas must maintain space so as not to demand too much of the water supply. Some plants interact, some interact with insects; all have developed sophisticated approaches to survival. The peachthorn, desert almond and silver chollo cactus all have small surface leaves and additional arrangements to make water-gathering surface areas (leaves) small to decrease evaporation. Mormon Tea doesn't even have leaves; it absorbs water in a very thin green portion of its stem.

I drive to my favorite spot, Key's View. I discovered this a few years ago when I was working on a travel book. It is a place in Southern California where, from one spot, you can see so many elements that make up the southern half of this huge state. From this one spot, at around 5,000 feet, you can see Palm Springs, Mt. San Jacinto (the tallest mountain in Southern California) and the Gorgonio Pass, thru which the bad air from L.A. winds east. You can see Indio and the large farms, the San Andreas Fault, a piece of the Colorado River aqueduct, the Salton Sea, and, in the distance on a clear day, Signal Mountain, 90 miles away in Mexico. From this spot there is wealth, tourism, snow-covered mountains, bad air, agriculture, earthquakes, water, and our neighbors to the south. The only thing you can't see is the beach, and wine valleys.

I hiked a trail I'd never taken before, up around a thousand feet higher than the parking area at Key's View. Climbing and standing solitary against a moderate but steady wind. Thinking, I can unplug. I have succeeded in not knowing, and I cannot feel a difference. I cannot discern a difference. And, obviously, I'm going a bit out of my gourd. As I walk down I wish I'd been educated as a geologist, so I could read the ground and rocks as well as I can read a political landscape.

Thursday afternoon I drove back to L.A., believing that I was the only one who didn't know who won. I didn't listen to the news. When I got home I listened to my messages, figuring I would learn from a friend what had happened.

Ron: "Aren't you proud to be from Florida? I guess the missing ballots are in Jeb Bush's trunk."

Okay, that's weird.

Ira: "Whatever happened to Barry Commoner?"

Well, that's Ira.

Jackie: "Can you believe this? I can't believe this! I've been glued to CNN all day! This is incredible! I've gotta talk to you about this! Call me!"

Hmmm. I have no idea what's happened. Something exciting, maybe? Something having to do with Florida and missing ballots? Maybe someone won the popular vote and someone won the electoral vote and the Marines were mobilized.

I call Ira and he fills me in, and I discover, much to my chagrin, that I'm not the only person who didn't know who won.

And I think for a moment about falling to my knees and pounding on the beach as the camera reveals stacks and stacks of uncounted ballots, and I'm grabbed by Sam and Cokie and Wolf and Tim and they begin badgering me with platitudes and warped logic and hauling me toward a TV set and I dig my feet into the ground and shout: "Get your filthy paws off me!"

Instead, I grit my teeth. We're in for the long haul.

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