Episode 23: Five Breathless Days
For eight months Horace, Tom, Winston and the rest of us at The Last Chance Democracy Café have been looking ahead to one day. God help us, now that day is almost at hand.
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 23: Five Breathless Days
by Steven C. Day
Horace was gazing into his beer with the intensity of a wizard studying a mystical orb. “I’m astonished, really, by how profoundly I care about this election . . .” he said at last. “I don’t think I would ever have guessed that I could care this much about anything . . . anything, that is, other than the health and welfare of my family.”
“I get your point,” Tom tossed in, his voice sounding distant, even distracted. “We’re all political animals here. People, who by our nature tend to care a lot more than most people about the outcome of elections. But this time it’s different, more intense . . .”
Horace continued, “I mean, I was depressed when Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, when Reagan topped Carter in 1980 and when Gingrich & Co. took over the House in 1994. And then, of course, there was 2000 . . . although that was more anger than depression. But in none of those elections . . . even the theft of 2000, did I feel the way I feel today.”
“That we’re playing for all the marbles?” offered Tom.
“No . . . that we’re playing for my grandchildren’s futures.”
To be honest, I was only half listening to the conversation at this point. I was too busy pleading with God to keep the fire inspector tied up on the other end of town. We were that busy. It’s been like that for a couple of weeks now. It seems like the closer we get to November 2, the more people come to The Last Chance Democracy Café. I suppose that when you care as deeply about something as our customers care about the upcoming election, it’s human nature to want to spend time with fellow travelers.
Winston shook his head in what, for him, was an unusually sober fashion. “This election really is that important, isn’t it?”
“But it shouldn’t be,” said Horace in a pained voice. “Considering what a great nation this is, one election shouldn’t mean that much.”
“I see your point,” agreed Tom. “The United States is so strong . . . our democratic traditions so well grounded, you’d think we could easily withstand one crappy president.”
“Exactly. We should be able to just shake it off . . . the way a professional football player shakes off a small bruise without even leaving the game.”
Winston grunted, “You’re missing the point boys. Of course, America has what it takes to withstand four more years of crappy political leadership. God knows that we’ve done it enough times in the past. But the point isn’t just that George W. Bush is a crappy president. The real point is that he’s . . .”
“The crappiest ever?” offered Tom.
“The King of Crap?” suggested Zach.
“All true,” allowed Winston, “but also largely beside the point. The scary thing isn’t that he’s a crappy president . . . or even the crappiest president in American history. The scary thing is that he’s a crappy president on a mission — a crappy president who’s trying to remake the world in his own crappy image. And he’s already well along the road to making it happen.”
If you didn’t know better, you’d have probably guessed that the café that evening was actually the local Democratic party headquarters. Practically every soul in the place was decked out in campaign gear. Most had come to the lounge directly from working the precincts — left over campaign fliers still hanging out of their pockets.
Horace seconded Winston’s thought, saying, “I think you’re onto something. Warren Harding may well have been the worst president in American history . . . before Bush, that is, but at least he had no illusions of grandeur, no drive to build a new American empire, or to remake American society into a theocratic version of paradise . . .”
Tom also agreed, “You’re right. What’s scary isn’t Bush’s incompetence. It’s the way that incompetence is mixed with such generous doses of arrogance and zealotry.”
“You with us?” Winston smiled at Zach.
“Yup,” Zach smiled back confidently. “You’re saying that Bush isn’t just a crappy president. He’s a crappy president with attitude.”
“Damn, I wish I’d been that smart back when I was his age,” grinned Tom.
Winston huffed, “Hell, I wish you were that smart today. Our discussions would go a lot more smoothly.”
Horace still looked down in the dumps. “With so much on the line this year . . . and with us caring so much about the outcome,” he said, “waiting these last few days for the vote is just unbearable . . . it’s pure torture.”
“And it isn’t made any easier,” agreed Tom, “by having to listen to Bush and his minions constantly misrepresenting everything John Kerry says . . .”
Zach smiled nervously, then showing, I thought, a fair amount of guts, took it upon himself to challenge the conventional wisdom of the table. “Well, in fairness, though, Kerry and the Democrats haven’t exactly been shy about twisting Bush’s words either,” he said.
“Not even in the same ballpark,” replied Tom.
“Well, then you’re going to have to show me how it is that Bush’s people have been so particularly unfair to Kerry.”
Winston scoffed, “It’ll be a pleasure . . .”
“And while we’re on the subject, really guys, aren’t you getting a little melodramatic about all this? I mean, you know I don’t support the son of a bitch, but the truth is that the country made it through the first four years of Bush. Surely it could survive another four.”
Like I said, I think Zach was showing a lot of guts. But that being said — does the phrase “them’s fighting words” mean anything to you?
“Good God, man,” Tom was the first to erupt, “where the hell have you been the last four years . . . abducted by aliens?! You’ve got to freakin’ be kidding . . .”
Horace, ever true to his duties as the group’s informal den mother, interrupted Tom in mid-tantrum. “Let me respond, Zach,” he began in a calm voice. “Think about what’s happened since Bush took office. Four years ago we were at peace. Now more than 1100 Americans and counting have died in an utterly unnecessary war. What’s worse, Bush sent those brave young Americans into battle with less than half the number of troops the military thought were needed to do the job properly and without adequate body armor to boot. In other words, he set them up to be sitting ducks.”
“And for what?” said Tom bitterly. “To stamp out nonexistent weapons of mass destruction? To punish a nonexistent connection to the Sept. 11 attacks?”
“And how about the ‘let’s not bother with a plan’ plan for post war reconstruction,” added Horace. “Not to mention not bothering to guard anything other than the Oil Ministry during the early days after Baghdad fell . . . including, we now learn, 380 tons of high explosives . . .”
“Explosives that are almost certainly now being used to kill our people,” noted Tom disbelievingly.
In case you’re wondering, The Last Chance Democracy Café will be closed until 8:00 p.m. on election day. Virtually all of the café’s employees and customers intend to spend the day working on the GOTV get out the vote effort. Then later, we’ll all meet up here for the big — God, please hear my words — VICTORY PARTY.
“And never forget,” continued Horace, “that Bush’s excellent Iraqi adventure caused us to pull resources off of the real war against terrorism . . . allowing al-Qaeda to regroup after the War in Afghanistan.”
Winston spoke sternly, “I have to tell you, Zach, I’m absolutely shocked to learn that you’ve decided to throw your lot in with Bush!”
Horace and Tom glanced at each other, as if to agree to follow Winston’s lead.
“Wait a second. I never said . . .” began Zach.
Tom cut him off in mid protest, “Meanwhile, the War in Iraq has been a godsend for al-Qaeda in terms of recruiting, while, at the same time, driving a wedge between the United States and its traditional allies — folks we will desperately need in the real battle against terror.”
Winston added snarlingly, “But, hey, at least Halliburton came out smelling like an oil stained rose . . . what with all those multibillion dollar no-bid, no-accountability contracts their friends at BushWorld handed them.”
“Strange isn’t it,” sighed Horace. “Somehow Bush couldn’t come up with the money to put armor on all of the Humvees. But when it came to paying . . . no, overpaying . . . no grossly overpaying Halliburton, price was no object.”
“So, Zach, do you still think the country was lucky to have Bush as president for the last four years?” asked Winston with just a hint of condescension.
“What? I never said . . .” began Zach.
“And how about the economy?” Tom cut him off again. “Bush is set to become the first president since Herbert Hoover to score a net loss of jobs . . . around 800,000 of them turned to dust in just four years.”
Horace added, “And that’s just half the story. There’s also the fact that what new jobs are being created in today’s economy pay less, about $2.27 an hour less, than the old jobs that are being lost. And when you add to that the effect of the Bush tax cuts . . .”
“Tax cuts that have shifted the total tax burden away from the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and directly onto the backs of the middle class . . .” Tom hurried to add.
” . . . it’s no wonder,” continued Horace, “that the march toward economic inequality in this country has grown ever swifter under Bush’s tender mercies.
Back on the election night party at the café, I’ve tried to make myself come up with a contingency plan — you know, some way to try to cheer up the troops if Bush does somehow end up winning. But I can’t do it. It’s just too painful to think about.
Tom said, “Ordinary Americans are hurting. Consumer debt is at record levels, bankruptcy filings are on the rise, many middle income families can no longer afford to send their children to college, the percentage of Americans with health insurance is plummeting, the number of working families living in poverty is on the rise . . .”
Winston sat up straight in his chair. “And to think, Zach,” he barked, “that you’re trying to convince us that George W. Bush did just a wonderful job during the last four years . . .”
“Now just one damned minute,” shouted Zach. “I never said anything of the . . .”
“And while you’re busy singing Bush’s praises,” interjected Tom, “have you forgotten what’s happened with the budget deficit? Did it just slip your mind how your hero turned a $236 billion surplus into a $422 billion deficit?
“My hero?! Now just one . . .”
“See there, you admit it,” Winston shook his head. “You actually think the man’s a hero. My Lord, don’t you even care at all about all the damage he’s doing to our natural environment?”
“Or the way he’s undermining the solvency of the Social Security system?” blurted Tom.
“That’s enough!” shouted Zach in a voice loud enough to turn heads throughout the lounge.
Zach noticed that Horace, Tom and Winston were all smiling at him.
He eyed them suspiciously.
They didn’t say a word — just kept smiling.
Finally I broke the impasse, “Zach, do you remember telling the guys a few minutes ago that you wanted them to show you how it is that Bush and Company has been misrepresenting John Kerry’s words.”
” . . . Yeah, I guess so” said Zach cautiously.
“I think they just did.”
Horace smiled, “Sorry, Zach, we just couldn’t resist.”
“No problem . . . and point taken.”
The down side to holding an election party at The Last Chance Democracy Café is that there’s no way I’ll be able to clear the crowd out at closing time, especially if the election is still in doubt. And if the alcohol and beverage inspectors happen by, I’m sure to get busted. Oh well, I guess my only regret will be that I have but one liquor licence to give for my country.
Horace’s smile slowly faded. “The thing is, Zach, all joking aside,” he began, “this year’s election really is of historic importance. That’s not just hype. Not this time. This is almost surely the most important presidential election in more than a hundred years. Because . . . let’s see, how to explain this . . . well, because on Nov. 2, 2004, the voters won’t just be picking a president. They’ll also be deciding just what sort of nation America will be . . . and not just for the next four years, but more likely than not for decades to come . . .”
“There are tipping points in history,” concurred Winston. “Times when a nation must decide between Robert Frost’s two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . and having chosen one, be forever precluded from returning to the road not taken. That’s where America now stands.”
“You understand,” Horace nodded to Zach. It was an affirmation, not a question.
“Yes, I think so.”
“I know so.”
Zach thought for a moment before saying, “It’s that point of no return thing you’ve been talking about since the first evening I came to The Last Chance Democracy Café, right?”
“Right. Four more years of Bush, combined with continued Republican domination of Congress, will change this country in profound and irreversible ways. Bush’s first term was the most ideologically extreme presidency in American history. And a second term . . . untempered, as it would be, by the restraint of an upcoming reelection campaign, would surely be twice as bad.”
“And make no mistake, my young friend,” said Winston, “a second Bush term will produce no new moderation — no late game move toward the center. George W. Bush is a true believer. He truly believes that the government should favor the wealthy over working Americans. He truly believes in an American destiny . . . or maybe it’s a Bush destiny, made up of military unilateralism and the quest for empire. And if given a second term, he will have the power to make these things true . . .”
Horace differed, “No, that’s wrong. He won’t have the power to make his fantasies true. The problem is that he will have the power to create the national nightmare that trying to make them true is certain to entail.”
“Agreed,” Winston conceded the point.
“That’s the decision our nation faces,” continued Horace, “a choice between two very different visions of America.”
“Will we begin the path back to our grand heritage as a middle class nation,” said Tom, “or remain one deeply stratified between the fabulously wealthy and everyone else?”
Horace pushed the point forward, “Will we reinvigorate the great American Dream that each new generation should be able to do at least a little better than their parents did, or will we continue our slow slide into declining standards of living, mounting personal debt loads and lessened opportunity?”
“Will we start paying our own way, or continue to spend like drunken sailors, then pass the bill onto our kids . . . ?” said Tom.
“Will we once again become a nation of laws and not men?” Winston, the former judge, was clearly speaking from his heart. “Or will we continue down the road of secret arrests, secret searches, secret government and diminished personal freedom?”
Tom jumped in again, “Will we join the rest of the world in facing up to the dangers of global warming before it’s too late?”
“And will we start protecting our few remaining wilderness areas, instead of viewing them as little more than a smorgasbord for developers?” Horace took the point forward. “Will we once again make clean air and clean water a priority, instead of an empty talking point?”
“And to get right down to it,” said Tom, “will we once again become a nation that’s respected around the world, or will belligerence, bullying and bombs be our only calling cards from now on?”
“Which is it going to be, America?” whispered Horace. “Will we be a democratic republic or will we be an empire? . . . Because, as many others have said, in the end, we can’t be both.”
“And here we are, with so much on the line and the day of reckoning almost at hand,” said Horace, “And the contest is still so close . . . so agonizingly close.”
Winston looked at his watch. “It’s already past midnight,” he said fatalistically. “It’s now Oct. 28. Five days to go . . .”
Horace summoned up a small smile.
“Five breathless days.”
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at scday(AT)buzzflash.com.
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001