The Political Education of an American Kid, 1973 v 2016

POLITICS ARE BIG in my house. Before my daughter turned eight, we listened to the news on NPR, read The New York Times – more (my husband) or less (myself); we worked hard, had dinner together nightly, watched Liv and Maddie before bedtime. We voted for Obama in 2012, as my family has voted for Democrats since McGovern. My daughter, six during the last presidential election, was enamored by President Obama’s charisma and eloquence. She was keen on how he talked about learning, and was a big fan of his programs to support coding education for kids. I was just moved to WANT to hope.

Fast forward to 2016. We’re still listening to NPR, still reading the Times, (still watching Liv and Maddie) but after deleting what seems like the fortieth urgent and unread DNC e-mail of the day, I contemplate the origins of my own political skepticism as I braid the pigtails of the budding zealot sitting in my lap.

It’s the spring of 1973, I am eight, and I am home from school with the chicken pox. My stepdad is missing his classes at the community college to stay home with me, and it is the first week of the Watergate Hearings. We have a black and white television, and every station is broadcasting the hearings. All day. Every day. Changing the channel does nothing but cause the same faces to pop and spread across the screen anew, which has limited entertainment value. After frying my brain by trying to amuse myself with my transistor radio, what could I do but sit before the TV and watch a numbing blur of men reveal a complex, and colossally dull, tale of conspiracy and corruption?

As a result, I knew more about Haldeman, Erlichman, and John Dean than most adults in my family, or in my school, or in my world. And really it came down to a story of almost primal simplicity: the President lied. The President attempted to undermine the electoral process, and he lied. I had the suspicion that what I had seen on TV was merely business as usual. What was unusual was that he had been caught. There was also a feisty story lurking there that the President COULD be caught, and he was, because we are a democracy after all.

But, at that moment Republicans – in my eight-year-old mind – were firmly established as a party of bloated, boring, self-serving liars – criminals, actually. Sure, my opinion has evolved. I now see whatever you can call the “heart” and “soul” of the Republican party as simple dogmatic social conservatism. I can’t be certain that this experience was the origin, but since around that time I’ve been afflicted with low-grade political apathy and have had a bad relationship with authority figures.

2016. We are watching a Republican Debate, as we have watched every one of them at the request of my daughter. Now nine, she is scoring the candidates’ performances. As one of the candidates begins to open his mouth and raise his hands to speak, she turns slyly towards me and marks a tally in the debit column, labeled “DUMB.” After watching several previous debates, she knows before he even speaks that what comes out will be garbage.

That’s when I realize that her grown-up political views are being shaped right here, right now, by this primary season, just as mine were 43 years ago, watching the Watergate Hearings.

“Mr. Trump,” she says to the contorted face on the screen, “little girls are your worst nightmare.”

We’ve watched all the debates, Republican and Democrat, and I have to say, she’s a fair listener, in spite of her harsh judgments. She will actually listen to the candidates, whereas I can barely stomach them. We watch as a female moderator takes on a row of men, uniformed in their dark suits and red power ties (a play from Art of the Deal?), and she notices the shape of a giant hot dog on the screen behind the three Republican front-runners. This could have led to a slate of wiener jokes, but it didn’t, because we were too engrossed in watching the Republican party implode, crash landing into the sty of schoolyard bullying, lying, and fear mongering that was surely at that moment spawning another American Democrat. Probably zillions. It all makes me a little nostalgic for 1973.

Later, as Ben Carson attempts to respond to the moderator, she will amend the “DUMB” column to read “DUMB slash ASLEEP,” and there are plenty of marks in that column. But, she’s not asleep. She’s wide awake. Her view: she wants to see a woman win the White House, and not just any woman, THIS woman – Hillary Clinton – who delivers intellect and experience against a tawdry backdrop of wieners. And that’s her mother talking.

This primary season is fostering at least one active, engaged, and un-intimidated little girl. We watch the Republican spectacle and are appalled – these are the potential leaders of our country? Even a fourth grader can see the problems with this scenario. I’d like to assure her that reason and experience will prevail, but it’s entirely possible that they won’t. It’s entirely possible that a bankrupting con-man will win a nomination for the presidency of the United States. But maybe I should thank the GOP, because my girl’s already getting herself lined up to vote in 2024, when she’ll be an active, engaged, and un-intimated young woman – Mr. Trump’s worst nightmare. She’s paying attention. And because she is, I am.

Among the other categories in her chart are “GOOD” (which remained empty of tallies as of “halftime”) “BOOED,” “ZING,” and the quintessential “HATE.” I think for a moment that I should say something, provide her with a model of more sophisticated analysis or critical thinking. But then I think, no. She nailed it.


About Cat Rios

Cat Rios is a professor of writing and digital media. Her short story, Open Season, was awarded the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship in Literature. She has several projects in progress, among them a screenplay and historical book on corruption in the 1950’s New York Garment Industry, which she is writing with David Witwer, and a collection of short stories called A Little Like Iceland.
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2 Responses to The Political Education of an American Kid, 1973 v 2016

  1. Donna says:

    I wish your daughter was handling the cable news commentary instead of the people we’ve got. She sounds like a great kid.

  2. Demian says:

    I have a friend for her about the same age, wrote a scathing indictment of the Common Core. Compared it to ill-fitting rental skates. Unfortunately for her she used the f-bomb in her essay. The teacher couldn’t see past it. The horizon is just past the pedantry. Take these girls seriously. Oh and I LOVE her chart. I am a school principal. So I’m an expert.

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