Conversations with My Mother

Last week I had lunch with my mother. At 86 going on 66 she’s remarkable, alert and energetic, in generally high spirits; in the last decade she’s found the church, which I figure is fair enough for anyone who knows they must be somewhere near the end. Now this enters her conversation more, which I accept as well as someone can who has a higher opinion of God than of religion. Mom and I used to talk about politics a lot, something that always unnerved my wife, who didn’t understand how our contentiousness could be so good natured. But starting with the Iraq War, which made me madder than anything in my political life (including the Vietnam War, when I was a potential draftee), and moving into the Age of Obama, we’ve tiptoed around the subject of politics, for reasons that became clear at last week’s lunch when we skirted the subjects of Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly’s Super Bowl interview with the president, health-care reform, and the weather. Mom is an O’Reilly fan; she requested a signed book of his for Christmas which I dutifully got for her, and the truth is there are lots of people I find more noxious than the voluble O’Reilly who, unless he’s reneged on it, scored some credibility points with me a year or two back when he told his listeners to get over the fact that the president is indeed an American and not a Kenyan. 

Mom was my first political mentor, beginning around the time I was 12 when she took me to hear Barry Goldwater speak in Downtown Los Angeles. But right there in that fact lies the difficulty of our relationship as it currently has to do with politics, because many of the positions that Goldwater held firm for years, having to do with the draft, voting rights, women’s rights, abortion rights, gay rights, American Indian rights, the environment, and marijuana legalization just to cite a few, were well to the left of where the Republican Party is now, in the same way that even Ronald Reagan’s politics were. That shift notwithstanding, the real problem for Mom and me, as I think is true for many Americans these days, and maybe many sons and daughters and their parents, is that we don’t even agree anymore on the cardinal north/south/east/west of a common political compass. It’s not that we don’t talk the same language; we’re not living in the same world, or maybe I mean universe. The matter of climate change is the most dramatic example. Not since acceptance of the earth being round and circling the sun has the science on something been so universal, but as the weather becomes more freakish, which by the lights of Fox News only disproves global warming—because, you know, it’s really cold—my Mom rolls her eyes at the liberal conspiracy of it all.

A couple months ago, at the time of the health-care reform rollout, I got a phone call from her. “Boy, your president really has screwed things up,” she said, then expressing motherly alarm that my family’s coverage might be dropped, something she asked about again at lunch last week when she reiterated festering concerns that in the ongoing bolshevik takeover she’ll lose her Medicare, which half a century ago she decried as socialized medicine. Suppressing the snappish retort that Barack Obama is her president as well as mine, I was at a bit of a loss on the occasion of that original phone call, wanting to be sure of the facts that I now tried to present over our chicken pot pies, that my wife and our family aren’t losing our coverage and—echoing my attempts to offer many such assurances over the past five years—that Mom isn’t losing her Medicare either, and that people are being dropped from policies not by the government but by insurance companies who don’t want to update those particular policies to meet the same sort of regulations that the chicken pot pie in front of her has to meet before the restaurant can serve it to her, because those policies only are profitable for the insurance companies if they never pay out, as they’re precisely designed to never do.

At such junctures, however, our conversations become not just futile but as loony as all the other discussions these days of so-called Obamacare. They’re loony because they’re about a law that’s already passed and whose success or failure is already underway and will eventually speak for itself in defiance of any effort now to try and interpret that success or failure beforehand, and maybe even in spite of the concerted efforts of Republican governors to sabotage it. All of which is to say that, because Mom gets all her “information” within the bubble of Fox Nation, she missed the recent spectacle occasioned by a Congressional Budget Office report on Obamacare and jobs when the news story became not the report itself but rather the right’s interpretation of it, concluding that the report said what in fact it didn’t (which is that Obamacare would kill jobs rather than offer more senior workers, for example, the opportunity to leave the job force if they want, since they no longer have to keep a job simply for the health-care benefits). Politics always is about perception to some extent but Obamacare’s outcome is beyond the politics of perception, something the right can’t accept because it’s too vested in a failure that, whatever you might think of the original policy, would be catastrophic, since even most of the right now begrudgingly acknowledges—as heard in the Republican responses to the State of the Union—that the earlier status quo no longer is tenable as it had to do with a health-care system that was on its way to consuming a quarter of the national economy.

Though I didn’t have the intellectual honesty to admit this to my mother, in fairness it should be pointed out that the right isn’t singularly guilty of such perverse investments. Progressives were similarly vested in the failure of the 2007 Iraq surge championed by Senator John McCain that more dispassionate observers later conceded had some success. But at the least in that instance some consensus existed on what the metrics of success might be—which was stabilization of the Iraqi situation—not to mention the terminology by which success might be defined. In the same way that my mother and I aren’t even talking about the same Obamacare when we talk about Obamacare, we’re not talking about the same Barack Obama when we talk about Obama. Mom remarked at lunch on how combative and aggressive the president was in his discussion with O’Reilly, that paragon of supernaturally even temperament, even as some of us have been waiting five years for the president’s body heat to finally rise within 10 degrees of losing his cool: Get mad for once, why don’t you? we wonder while Fox breathlessly monitors every incendiary outburst by the Hothead-in-Chief. I honestly don’t know whether this applies to my Mom or not, but the mere fact of Obama—not what he says or does but the sheer existence of his presidency—remains more than much of the country has been able to wrap its head around. Obama’s historicity has rendered our current politics one loose screw short of national insanity, of which there may be no more compelling evidence, even setting aside the nitwitted characterization of Obama as the most radical president ever (in which case you might want to acquire some passing familiarity with the administrations of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, either Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson), than that Mitt Romney clearly is running for president again. Let me repeat this for those still earthbound enough to find such a revelation nearly impossible to absorb. Former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the worst presidential nominee by either party since anti-woman, anti-black, losing-in-a-landslide-even-after-the-Republican-Teapot-Dome-scandal 1924 Democratic nominee John W. Davis, has surveyed the collapse of New Jersey governor Chris Christie and the viability-challenged prospects of Jeb Bush and concluded, correctly and notwithstanding the torrent of demurrals he offered on Meet the Press this past Sunday, that there isn’t a single other living Republican hinged enough to win the White House.

Now that I think about it, with the perspective of only a single week, I don’t remember what Mom and I talked about at what I do otherwise remember to have been our very pleasant lunch. I seem to recall some comment about how good our government-regulated chicken pot pies were, how my work was going, my ups and downs in parenting her 16-year-old grandson and eight-year-old granddaughter—the stuff that maybe moms and their grown sons should talk about. And then, having flirted with danger at some barely stable nexus of our two parallel political universes, we retreated to other, much simpler matters, like God.

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