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On the Election

I

They have all fled—all. The South, Texas, perhaps Massachusetts, New York, California—deserters. The suburbs: feeling ungenerous. The Jews, the unions, a poll slicing off the college professors. The middle class and the working class; the Middle West and the Southwest. Even many of the youth and turncoat Democrats, chagrined party leaders. To persist for McGovern is like staying back in a bombed-out village when everyone else is on the road with his mattress and cooking pots. Are they fleeing toward or away from? Who can say? All we know is the whirr of one-way motion on the bare, yellow, political flatlands.

Poor McGovern troubles deaf heaven with his bootless cries. If he asks for effort they tell him they want rest, a cure in a corporate motel. If he asks for loyalty they rage purple and point to their bodies scored with the injuries of his mere inhalations and exhalations (promises, promises). Mistakes, mistakes, they scream at him. You are nothing but mistakes. You with your rules, your new convention, your thousand dollars and thousand percent; you with your knees and your amnesties, your hidden abortion babies in a bottle; your capital gains and your arching credibility; your visions and revisions; your depopulated polls, your ashamed workers, your bills, your dehydrated troughs, your viperish staff, your footling position papers.

Nearly everyone concedes the reelection of the inimitable incumbent. But that is not enough; something grander is at hand, drastic, a landslide, a mandate, overwhelming, historic. An apathetic overwhelming victory. It is scarcely a war, merely a victory.

The Democratic convention comes back to memory like some 1960s Living Theatre—a sort of Paradise Now, do-your-own-thing ceremony, a ritual, addressed to a ready, vibrating audience, the Coalition—now fallen apart, crumbling, drifting into fragments, disappearing into the night. Three thousand first-time delegates, Power to the People, California primary, the under-thirties, women, blacks, welfare rights, liberation (“To all male delegates: Have you ever suffered through an unwanted pregnancy?”), minority reports, challenge, day-care, boycott lettuce…Eagleton.

Eagleton initiated nothing, but what a proper instrument, an invention, he was for the release of multitudinous viruses swimming dormant in the blood stream. The need to surrender and the will to revenge burst out like a plague during the Eagleton week. Irrelevant to Nixon, to the unstable issues, perhaps Eagleton is best remembered as one of the dimly recalled assassins of old Europe, an obscure dynamite pressed at the temple of the country. You wake up after the shot in the carriage, not to a state funeral, but to a state suddenly in violent shift, unexpected movement.

The Republican convention was a celebration of the will to surrender. We are all, each of us, small but worthy Americans, in the hands of a higher power; we are a flock and they are the shepherds; no, he is the shepherd. The young people there at the Republican convention, on the buses going up and down the strip, struck at my heart with old memories, decades ago, of Henry Clay High School. They are perturbingly durable, marbelized in the strain. A genetic force keeps them in line, on the tracks, generation after generation. Is there a world in flux, in chaos? Well, they are the vault in the center, patient, changeless. Their everlasting “Yes, M’ams” and “No, M’ams” ring out like the h’s of Appalachia, old forms preserved in isolation. They make you think of certain long dead slaves of commerce: the bookkeeper with his eye shade and the clamps around his wrist, the drygoods clerk with his bolts of calico and tape measures, old doors with large brass keys. But most of all, young as they are, they understand and practice a surrender of the “I” of opinion. They know in the most natural, effortless way how to delegate authority, their own. This indeed is what they have to offer the country, all of those fleeting voters who wish to learn surrender.

My questions, mild and unprovoking. Answers came with a look of steady assurance. “They’re working on that problem, M’am,” and “The President is very interested in that,” and “He’s doing a good job in that area.” Surrender to “them” and “him.” (Unimaginable the storming of the Bastille that followed upon McGovern’s goof about residual forces in Thailand.)

The Republicans seem to partake of a natural structuralism. They come together as separate, far-flung tribes only to discover they are wearing the same patterns of body painting. Almost every woman at the convention, young or old, rich or poor, was wearing a costume of red, white, and blue. No matter that it might come from Neiman-Marcus or the local Fair Store, be blazing with stars and stripes or only the neatest little red line on a navy pump—each had decided separately on the convention emblems, out of an unconscious kinship bond, inclinations and tastes of an astounding connectedness.

To participate, then, is to participate in an agreement, in a landslide giving-over to him, to them. Reform delegate quotas, strategies of representation, are a sort of welfare. Kinship is winning, an earning in a long line of consequential political actions that give one then the right to take part—not, as with the Democrats, jumping ahead as a mere statistic whose number has come up in a participatory lottery. And it appears that most of the country is worn out, sorely troubled in body and spirit, but more tired than troubled, ready to throw off the hump of argument, dissent, those burdensome prerogatives of moral protest, pity, and sacrifice for equality.

Revenge: McGovern quickly became like a deformed dwarf in a fable. Perhaps there was inevitably something vulnerable in him that made him the perfect vessel for the waters of wrath. He seems to represent an unproductive seeking for first principles, a frustrating lack of harshness. What indeed is the answer to crime, poverty, restlessness, unemployment, inflation? Of course no one has the answer. What is asked of you is that you be violently against manifestations of disorder and breakdown, protest and impatience.

Strange—Russia and China turned out to be painless after all. They have killed the sacred father, capitalism, but they know how to deal with the serpent-toothed children. The topless girl goons burning American flags in front of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach—the Republican young had seen her at last, smudged breasts thrust out, a taper and a flag. A dread primitive rite had been put behind them—they had experienced it out of the corner of their eyes. In the end Russia and China are much more agreeable to Nixon and Agnew and the Republicans than, for instance, Sweden with its draft deserters, porno shops, kids mixing fornication and homework upstairs with parental approval. That is the McGovern world, as they imagine it, permissive, nude, demanding.

When one alters one’s affections dramatically, without choosing a truly pleasing substitution, there is usually some element of sour revenge. And this is part of the wish of the Democrats and liberals who are now for Nixon. For the moment it is the repudiation that matters most, not the quality and character of the replacement. Revenge for the 1960s, for show-off students, for runaways, for attacks on the family and the system, for obscenity, for pot, for prisoner-pity, for dropping out, tuning in, for radical chic, for store-front lawyers, for folk singers, for muggings, for addicts for well-to-do Wasps grogged on charity binges.

So, Nixon is Necessity not Justice. The wishes and fears and angers that attend his second inaugural are complicated beyond unravelling. He is Necessity, standing on the rock of Power. Daily powerlessness, conflict, frustration, disappointment make one more drawn to the peace of abstract Power. It is there, not palpable like the powerlessness, but not detailed and known either and therefore more soothing. Something threatens and a spectral Number One is all we have to trust in.

Flotillas, formations whizzing through the heavens, far-off installations, in the ground, in the sea, on little islands far away, in the desert. This is our reward, our comfort. How clever of Nixon to stick McGovern with the domestic while he himself flies in the empyrean, latitudes of fire and light. Never look downward because every gesture of worldly solution is a revolutionary assault upon someone; every tax program, every school bus moving or stilled, wildly offends and outrages. You cannot, with what are aptly called domestic problems, keep from having a fight in the kitchen. It is the grate and jar of marriage once a politician unites his frail flesh with domestic issues.

But foreign policy is like going to church with the family for a sermon, for invocations and benedictions, for missionary glories throughout the world. We are asked, for the rest of the week, to feast on a perfect, advanced steel bullet, to live securely in a military parking lot.

Henry Kissinger is the true hero of the present mood, the knight of the ideal. He never brushes against the local, the familiar, the merely national. He is not even married and thus is as far from the domestic as a knight-ruler can be. He lives in a blue void, floating through the skies of the world, his streamers saying Power and Foreign Policy drifting gorgeously behind him.

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