During the preceding 11 episodes, the conversation in the café has largely involved the subject of economic inequality and the damage that is doing to American democracy. This is a critically important topic and one we will soon return to. But in the meanwhile, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s also a war going on . . .
The Last Chance Democracy Café:
Episode 12: Lies That Kill, Part One
by Steven C. Day
The potency of tears in today’s culture, especially the tears of men, is very much an age-dependent thing. It’s no secret that young and middle-aged men have the freedom these days to cry under circumstances that would have been unthinkable 40 years ago. Has your team lost the big game? No reason to hold back: Let the waterworks flow. Did that sweet young thing dump you after the second date? Concentrate now guys — find your inner Phil Donahue, then let those tears rip. It’s the same story with any one of a hundred other transitory traumas. And why not? It’s our party and we’ll cry if we want to, cry if we want to. (Imagine The Three Tenors singing it.)
Actually, on balance, I tend to think that this new openness to men exploring our inner crybaby is a good thing. And while I personally could live without the regular servings of George W. Bush’s carefully choreographed tears, this new openness toward men “being in touch with their feelings” is probably a good thing, even in politics. Better, at least, than the old “only sissies cry” dictum that helped drive Edmund Muskie out of the race for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination.
Muskie’s political demise seems almost surreal, viewed from today’s perspective. It started when William Loeb, publisher of the Manchester Union-Leader newspaper — the sort of man to make one doubt whether humanity really has risen quite as far up out of the primordial muck as we like to believe — published one of his famous slander specials in which, in addition to attacking Muskie himself, he also printed some particularly scurrilous falsehoods about the Senator’s beloved wife, Jane. It was more than Muskie could take, and in the process of publicly defending his lifemate, he committed the then unpardonable sin of breaking down for a moment and shedding a few tears. For all intents and purposes, his campaign was over.
Men in Muskie’s generation weren’t supposed to cry. The same was largely true of the men in the generation that followed. And the men of those generations who are still with us today, largely still hold to this same view. I guess that’s why, at least for me, the tears of elderly men have always seemed so much more poignant than the tears of the young. Young tears announce little in themselves. They can break your heart, but only in conjunction with a tragic story. But the sight of a 70 or 80-year-old man weeping requires no story to touch the heart.
And when it’s someone you respect — even love — it can hit you with a force that’s astonishing.
As Molly dropped off another round of drinks, it occurred to me that while this had been a reasonably good night at The Last Chance Democracy Café so far, it had been nothing exceptional. We’d had a good discussion about the skyrocketing cost of obtaining a college education, and of how this is mortgaging the futures of an entire generation of college graduates. We’d had some fun and shared a few laughs. But compared to a lot of Wednesday nights at the big round table, this one had been relatively passionless. I was even wondering whether we were boring Zach. Whether this, his second trip to the café, might prove to be his last.
Then I noticed the tears running down Horace’s face, and everything else faded to black.
“What’s wrong?” I gasped. Then almost immediately, I hated myself for saying it, for invading his privacy. I should have just pretended not to notice.
I tried to repair the damage. “I’m sorry, Horace. It’s none of my . . .”
He waived me off, then turned to Zach. “I’m sorry, son,” he said, his voice a little unsteady. “The last thing a strapping young fellow like you needs, is to see an old fool like me crying like a baby . . . It’s just, well, I was looking up at the television and . . . um . . . I’m sorry . . . ” his voice cracked again.
“No, no . . . ” said Zach. “It’s fine . . .”
” . . . I was looking at the television,” Horace struggled on, “and saw from the captioning that two more soldiers were killed in Iraq. It’s just such a waste . . . such a damn crime. I mean, how can this be happening again? And, I guess it kind of reminded me of . . .” Horace trailed off again.
“It reminded you of Lester, didn’t it,” said Tom.
Horace swallowed hard. “Yeah, I guess it did . . . Now, if you’ll excuse me, I probably ought to freshen up a bit.” And then he stood, slowly, deliberately and fully erect he walked over to the restroom.
As I watched my friend walk away, I felt the things you’d expect, like concern and sympathy. But as strange as it may sound, I think the strongest thing I felt was pride. Pride that even then, at his most vulnerable, he still somehow managed to display such a striking sense of dignity.
Zach’s eyes darted from person to person, waiting, I’m sure, for someone to fill him in. Finally, he just asked, “Who’s Lester?”
Tom answered, “Lester was Horace’s only son. He was killed in Vietnam.”
“Jesus,” said Zach.
“He was being transported and the helicopter he was on came under fire. It went down in the jungle, killing everyone on board. That’s really all he’s ever told us . . . I don’t know if he knows anything more.”
“He loved that kid with all his heart, that’s easy to see,” said Winston.
“You know that just by knowing Horace,” I agreed. “Can you imagine what a loving father he must have been . . . ?”
Tom quickly concurred. “And another thing you know, just by knowing Horace, is how hard it must have been on him. I’m the only one here . . . other than you, Zach, of course, who’s never had kids, but I can’t imagine how anything could be worse than losing a child — any child, under any circumstance. But to lose your only child because of the dishonesty and arrogance of your own government . . . My God, can you imagine how awful that would be? Thirty-four years may seem like a long time, time enough for old wounds to heal. But a wound like that . . . no, never.”
Horace was back now and he seemed firmly in control of his emotions, even managing a weak smile. “Lester was a great kid,” he began slowly. Then he smiled again, before adding, “If this were a movie, my next line would probably be to say that you remind me of him, Zach . . . But you don’t. Actually, the two of you have almost nothing in common. You’re white and he was black. You’re tall and he was much shorter. You listen to me when I talk and God knows he never did.”
Everyone laughed. It was welcomed release.
“No, it’s true,” Horace forced a laugh with us. “That kid insisted on doing the exact opposite of everything I said, and I mean everything. We fought nonstop from the day he turned 12 until the day he climbed on board that . . . well, you know, that plane. I wanted him to study. He wanted to shoot pool. I wanted him to study. He wanted to chase girls. I wanted him to study. Well, you get the idea . . .”
“And you loved him with all your heart, didn’t you?” said Molly, who’d stopped by the table on her way to deliver three Liberal Burgers to the dining area. She was the one crying now.
“Oh, it was a lot more than that, really.” Horace managed another small smile. “He taught me what love is . . . Don’t get me wrong. I loved his mother with all my heart. I still love her even now that she’s been gone these six years. But the love of a child is something different. Before your child is born, you think you know about love and you think your heart is full, but then . . . well, when that child comes you realize that before that day you’d never really understood anything. You discover a type of love . . . a type of unconditional no-holds-barred love that is so far beyond anything you ever even imagined that it turns you into a whole new person. Before Lester was born, I was just Horace. After he was born, I became Dad. And to lose that . . . my God, the hole it leaves.”
None of the rest of us allowed our eyes to meet. We didn’t trust ourselves.
“I’ll tell you something that may surprise you, Zach . . . it may surprise the rest of you, too,” said Horace, speaking very slowly at first. “The truth is that, despite losing my son to that God forsaken war, I don’t hold any grudge against Mr. Bush for using his Dad’s connections to avoid Vietnam. Hell, the truth is that if there had been some way that I could have gotten Lester into something like that so-called . . . What was the nickname they gave that unit of the Air National Guard in Texas where all the politicians sent their kids . . . ?”
“The Champagne Unit,” offered Tom.
” . . . Yeah, the Champagne Unit. If I’d had that kind of pull, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second. And if that had meant jumping over a hundred better qualified candidates, just like Bush did, I’d have done that, too . . . in a heartbeat. I won’t say that’s something I’m proud of it, but to keep my son safe, yeah, those other hundred could have gone straight to hell. It was 1970 and most of us understood by then that nothing good was going to come out of that war. It was like what young John Kerry said before that Senate committee . . . Tom help me out again . . .”
“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
“Right. Most of us felt that way by then. The bloom was long gone from the war. It was about survival. Of course it’s all hypothetical. We were poor and black. We had no pull, no connections. And when Lester’s number came up, he had only three choices. Go to jail, go to Canada or go to Vietnam.”
“Can I get you something, Horace?” asked Molly. She wanted to do something, but like the rest of us she didn’t know what she could do.
He smiled and shook his head no.
I patted Molly on the shoulder, gave her an encouraging smile, but then pointed at the burgers she was suppose to be serving. “Oh, gosh,” she said, then scurried off to deliver them.
That was one thing I especially admired about Zach that night. He didn’t try to say anything to make Horace feel better. No, “I’m sure your faith is a great comfort to you,” or even an “I’m so sorry.” No words at all. He was just there for him. It takes a lot of wisdom, especially at age 21, to understand that sometimes silence is the greatest comfort you can offer.
Horace’s face grew tight. “What I can’t forgive Bush for, though,” he began, “is the overwhelming sense of entitlement . . . I mean, if the bastard would just show some sign . . . just the slightest hint that he gets it. If he’d acknowledge that he got a break. I could live with that.” Horace’s voice betrayed that he was becoming as close as he ever gets to pure anger. He wasn’t shouting exactly, but heads were turning in every part of the lounge. “Okay, so Bush was a rich kid who used his connections to keep himself safe. No big deal. God knows he was far from the only one. So be it. But, damn it, he shouldn’t pretend it was something else. He shouldn’t put on a flight suit and act like he’s a combat veteran. That’s not right. That’s an insult to Lester and to everyone else who faced the real thing.”
“You’re right,” said Tom.
“Damn straight,” said Winston.
“And if he went AWOL from his guard unit when doing drills got inconvenient, all right, I can live with that, too. We all know the guard back then, wasn’t like the guard today. That units were almost never called up and that most people joined up to avoid the draft. Fine. That’s okay. But just tell the truth . . . just tell the God damned truth. That’s all I’m asking. Just stop the lying. Stop pretending it was something else. My God, I am so tired of all the lies.”
“We all are,” said Winston in a supportive voice.
“And just one other thing . . . it’s a small thing. I’m not asking for that much. I just want Bush to show some sign that he realizes that other lives . . . the lives of young American soldiers, the lives of Iraqis, too, for that matter . . . I want to see some evidence, some hint that he understands that those lives are just as precious as his was back then . . . back when he decided to take the safer road. Having escaped the horror himself, I want him to seem a little less happy about sending others to face it. That’s it. That’s all I’m asking.”
“You deserve that,” nodded Tom. “God knows that you’ve paid the price of admission.”
Horace nodded, starring intently at the table. “You know what it’s about, though don’t you?” His voice was softer now, more circumspect. “Bush can’t bring himself to admit that he got a break over Vietnam, for the same reason he’ll never admit that he got a break when Daddy’s friends kept buying him out of all those failed businesses, or even the fact he got a break when the Supreme Court handed him an election he didn’t win . . . The simple truth is that to George W. Bush himself, none of those things were a break of any kind. Far from it. In his mind, in every instance, he was entitled. His whole life has been marked by a profound and unremitting sense of entitlement . . .”
“You’ve got that right,” said Tom. “He’s George W. Bush, son of George HW Bush, grandson of Prescott Bush and the world owes him.”
Winston jumped in. “It’s no accident that one of his biggest goals in office has been the repeal of the estate tax. Bush believes in inheritance. He believes in dynasty. The blood of kings, or at least its modern equivalent, flows through his veins. Be gone, all ye pretenders! The throne is his by the Divine Right of Kings.”
“And the thing about feeling entitled,” Horace continued, “is that it takes on a logic . . . or really more an illogic, of its own. In George W. Bush’s world view, for instance, it’s wrong for disadvantaged minority children to be given a leg up in getting into a prestigious school, but it’s just fine that he was pushed ahead of better qualified applicants because of his family. He was a Bush. He was entitled.”
“Same miserable song, same miserable verse, with regard to drug abuse,” said Winston. “It’s just fine with him that drug addicts get sent up for unconscionably long prison terms for minor drug offenses under mandatory sentencing statutes . . . that’s just hunky dory, but, as to him personally, why, he doesn’t even need to answer questions regarding his own ‘wild younger years.’ He’s a Bush. Different rules apply. He’s entitled.”
“Don’t believe us?” Tom gestured to Zach, “read Kevin Phillips new book American Dynasty. Here’s the Reader’s Digest abridged version — To Bush’s mind, he’s entitled, he’s entitled and he’s entitled. End of story.”
“So is it really surprising,” said Horace, “that back in his Vietnam days . . . or maybe I should say, back in his non-Vietnam days, that he saw no problem with supporting the war, but at the same time making sure that it was other people, not him, who would go to fight and die? Of course not. Since when has anyone expected a Warrior King to personally lead the infantry charge? And if he wanted a war in Iraq . . . I mean, if he really wanted it, as clearly he did, should it really surprise anyone that if he had to stretch the truth a bit to get it — you know, a few mythical weapons of mass destruction here, a nonexistent tie in with terrorism there — that he’d do it? Of course he’d do it. He’d do it in the drop of a dime. After all, he’s entitled.”
End of part one
* * *
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 .
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #97400
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