Politics & Media
Dec 21, 2023, 06:29AM

Hold Your Nose

The myth of pre-Trump presidential election patriotism.

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Last Monday I mentioned parenthetically the irksome—to me—rise of Americana, this country’s New Fetish, as people, from coast to coast, but especially in rural areas, bemoan the decimation of tradition, religious and secular, reliable daily newspapers and TV stations (but biased) of decades ago and the price of a burger, fries and milkshake at the wholesome drive-in movie theater. As if inflation, corrupt politicians and journalists, racism and anti-Semitism are new to the 21st century. Nothing wrong with nostalgia—especially when recalling loved ones no longer alive—but wallowing in it is a crutch, an escape from present-day reality.

I read an essay by Kevin D. Williamson in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend, the sub-headline of which read, “The prospect of a Biden-Trump rematch shows how far U.S. democracy has fallen—and we have no one to blame but ourselves.” Williamson is no slouch as a writer, and entire paragraphs are knee-slappers of the first order, but he, too, has, without saying so directly, fallen under the Americana spell. I don’t take offense from the idea that the American people are to blame for 2024’s likely presidential contest, even if it’s condescending (following the example of his colleagues in what’s left of the Beltway journalism cabal, no longer “elite,” but still mouthy) and not at all representative of the majority of citizens who vote—and, so goes the unsubstantiated claim from right-wingers, illegal immigrants—who are just starting to pay attention to next year’s elections. As I said, Williamson has a sense of humor, unlike moral scolds like Robert Kagan, Conrad Black, Bill Kristol, David Frum and Roger Kimball, almost everyone who contributes to the nutty Federalist and Washington Examiner, “so there’s that,” in the parlance of today’s sloppy writers.

He writes: “Presidential elections are almost always showy, nationalistic affairs, full of appeals to patriotism and unity, occasions upon which even Ivy League diversity officers wave the flag and festoon the public square in red, white and blue.” (He then describes Donald Trump as a “depraved game-show host who tried to stage a coup d’état” and Biden as a “plagiarist and fabulist” who’s the complicit father of a degenerate crook. He left out that Trump was a sleazy (generous!) real-estate con man who almost weekly hit the front page of NYC’s tabloids in the 1990s; that his J6 was an attempted “coup d’état” is religion to some, although I’ve yet to see a video of any military presence at the Capitol on that day.)

Williamson includes this snippet of drivel: “Run Old Glory up the highest flagpole you can find, but 2024 is going to be the least patriotism-inspiring election in American history so far, a reminder of what a depraved, decadent, backward, low-minded, primitive, superstitious and morally corrupt people we have become.” Could be the Dispatch national correspondent is referring to his colleagues, but when I get together with friends there’s no evidence of “moral corruption” or “depravity.”

I’ve followed politics for a long time and there are few occasions that I remember patriotic fervor.

1960: I was just five, but I’d guess this was the last presidential election that excited Main Streets across the country. My own family was split: my parents for Nixon, resenting JFK’s wealth and glide to power; my brother Doug working at the Democrats’ local headquarters, which made for amiable—not nasty—dinner conversation. Never mind that both the Republicans and Democrats stole votes, received cash in paper bags, and that after it was over JFK reportedly said to Nixon, “I guess we’ll never know who really won.”

1964: Doesn’t really count, after JFK’s assassination a year earlier, although seeing Bobby Kennedy stand at the Atlantic City Democratic Convention’s podium for 22 minutes, waiting out the applause, was moving to me, even at nine.

1968: Patriotic? This election was hand-to-hand combat, all year, and if patriotism was flourishing it escaped me.

1972: Another landslide that no matter how hard the media tried, didn’t produce much enthusiasm. In retrospect, Sen. George McGovern, walloped by Nixon, was an honorable man, a WWII vet who was against the Vietnam War, but had a crummy campaign staff that couldn’t counteract the Republican smears. Patriotism on Election Day was as AWOL as Sen. Thomas Eagleton.

1976: The U.S. was in a decade-long recession, enthusiasm for politics was low (although the Tall Ships traveling show in that bicentennial summer was an attempt to gin up pride; I didn’t get it: a ship is a ship), but the head-scratcher was that Jimmy Carter, despite the economy, despite Watergate, barely defeated the hapless “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln” Jerry Ford. I was in college then, a semester off working in Denver, and lost $20 on that election. My friend Bill McGraw and I printed (on a Chief-17 offset press) a poster with the headline “Vote for Nobody,” with a-ripped-from-the-comics-pages Sluggo, of “Nancy” fame. We had a ball plastering them on telephone polls on Colfax Ave. I can’t recall any of my friends admitting to voting that year.

1980: The economy (still), Iran, the Killer Rabbit, and Carter’s cardigan gave Ronald Reagan (despite the media’s portrayal of him as an antecedent to Trump, and successor to Hitler) the upper hand in a surprisingly—The Washington Post’s poll two days before Election Day had a dead heat—easy win. No red, white and blue bunting in sight, just relief that Carter was gone (with an assist from Teddy Kennedy). I’d planned a dinner for four at my Baltimore apartment, and was pissed the election was called before polls even closed on the West Coast. I was tossing linguine and clams when Reagan was projected as the winner.

1984: I was in Paris for this one. The next day, I saw the headlines in the French papers, thought, “No kidding!” and met my brother Gary at a café for lunch. We talked about politics and the election for about a minute.

1988: Michael Dukakis, believing media reports that he was a shoo-in, took the summer off, had a spat with Jesse Jackson over clam chowder, and then became a running joke by appearing in a tank in Michigan. A snoozer, aside from George H.W. Bush’s fatal (in 1992) pledge of no new taxes.

1992: Disgust was a stand-in for patriotism, and no wonder: Bill Clinton (pre-Monica) was a smart and smarmy candidate from the start; Ross Perot out of his mind; and Bush couldn’t stomach campaigning and looked at his watch at an October 19th debate.

1996: Bob “It’s my turn” Dole talked in Senate language, Clinton kneecapped him with welfare “reform” and if anyone remembers one other notable aspect of this election, let me know.

I could, but won’t, go on. I will say that Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was exciting, and patriotic, because of his biggest accomplishment: becoming the first black president. That was historic, no matter whom you voted for (leaving aside the small cadre of bitter right-wingers).

There’s one man I can think of who during his 93 years was probably among the first at the polls each Election Day: that would be Frank DeFilippo, who passed away on Dec. 9. “Flip,” as he was known, reveled in politics (and was a staunch Democrat), wrote for a number of newspapers and for a period was Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel’s press secretary. Flip wrote a political column for my City Paper in the 1980s, and in those days of typewritten copy, his prose was pristine. He’d stop by our Charles Village offices every Friday to pick up a paycheck, chat with Phyllis Orrick and me, and then head off for a haircut. Frank also contributed to Splice Today for many years: in a profession short on gentlemen, he stood out.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023

  • 1976 was the first year I voted. I was so excited to be participating in the electoral system, despite having to wander around Baltimore for a few hours to find my polling place. I moved out of the country the next year and it was very eye opening to listen to European opinions of our political system. I learned 2 things during that time. America was not the center of the universe in international media and our choices for leaders was confusing to them. I found Italian politics totally bonkers, but my Italian friends defended their system as vehemently as I defended ours. I think I benefited from that outside view of America. Great article!

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