After a tough week, I collapsed in my leather recliner and drifted into a reverie. It smelled of wax, polish, sweat and stale cigar smoke. A voice spoke to me, "Uh, What are you doing in my bowling alley?" The voice belonged to none other than Richard Nixon. Somehow we were back in the 1970s, in the spacious but long since renovated-out-of-existence two lane alley of the Old Executive Office Building. "Mr. President," I said, "I honestly don't know why I'm here but, since I am, if I may, I'd like to ask you a couple questions." "OK," he said, "But I have a meeting later and won't be able stay with you for very long, so fire away."
"Do you know," I said, "some of us consider you the last liberal president?" I sat down in a molded plastic stackable chair. "But however you identify yourself," I continued, "I'm really curious about how you would describe today's Republican Party." "Well," he said, "the first thing, they're not conservative." Then silence. "What do you mean?", I asked. "A conservative," he said, "believes in people who are conscientious, who work hard for a living, who contribute to their community." I'm thinking 'that describes a liberal, too,' when I heard him sniff. "Republicans, these Republicans today," he said, "Uh, you know, they're pawns of Wall Street and the rich." A pause. "Those people who live on money, I hate them more than anything else." Then, in a whisper, "Undying. Eternal. Hatred." Another pause. "I suppose they hate me too -- after all, they destroyed me."
I knew what he meant but didn't want to get sidetracked. "Mr. President," I said, "The Republicans in Congress are worried about the deficit. Isn't that a genuinely conservative point of view?" "They may say that," he said, "but they won't back it up." He stared into my eyes. "As far as they're concerned, that money grows on trees." He shook his head. "The rich want lower taxes. They always wanted a class war -- they tried, you know, to push that crap with me. They kept trying and trying. They never stop." He sighed. "'Beat up on labor,' they told me. 'Make workers beg to keep their jobs, but with longer hours, lower wages and fewer benefits.' Goddammit, I refused. Remember, I was a young man -- just sixty, in good health. But I wasn't strong enough to win. Not in the long run." He started pacing back and forth and appeared agitated. I took advantage of the moment to ask (not knowing what to expect) whether he thought the U.S. political system was rotten to the core. "Of course," he laughed, "America is a great country. A great country -- don't get me wrong -- but the politics... everything is for sale. Besides, how do you think I got elected?" He continued pacing. I got up. "But surely, Mr. President," I said, "Republicans today must stand for something other than the interests of the rich. Otherwise, how could they possibly get elected into a House majority?" "Sometimes, you know, voters are stupid," he said, "but mostly these Republican front men, and women also, now, buy elections. Or steal them. It's not 'democratic' and it's not 'public service.' I thought I was in the business of public service." He stopped pacing and swept his arms wide. "But even in the 1970s, Jesus, I could see this damn takeover coming. And there wasn't," he growled, "a thing I could do about it." I wondered, 'maybe the rich are what drove him crazy?,' but on another point instead I asked, "So what's the second thing?"
"Those sons of bitches," he murmured, "have no conscience." He waggled his finger at me. "Listen to them, will you? Do they talk about real people, real things? No. They talk up a theory of 'free markets' and throw out a lot of words about 'jobs' and 'growth.' But they never talk specifics, except maybe abortions or war. They don't pay any attention to Goddamn facts and they don't care about real Americans." He sighed again. "They're 100% ideologues. Very, very dangerous. There's, uh, a lot of history about countries run by ideologues, none of it any damn good."
"Look what I did," he said. "I wanted to concentrate on foreign policy but I took stands on domestic issues and took flack I didn't have to take. I cared. I Goddamn cared. Uh, I got the U.S. off the gold standard. You know what that meant? The government controlled the economy again. I increased Social Security and Medicare benefits. I got the Clean Air Act. I established the EPA, and OSHA. I raised taxes and tariffs. I proposed a health care program better than anything that's been proposed since, but Ted Kennedy -- damn his eyes -- blocked it in the Senate. I protected wild horses, for Chrissakes." He started pacing again, staring out into space. "Only specifics matter. Only specifics. But Republicans today won't get near to specifics." He stopped and seized my elbow in an iron grip. "I opened the U.S. market to China, and I'm glad I did. You know, uh, you might like fighting the Chinese over economics instead of having a real war with them." He paused. "That's something else I don't get enough credit for, but I did it."
"Well," I shifted gears, "how could the Democrats fight back?" "They can't," he replied instantly, "and they won't try." He squinted theatrically and snarled, "That President Obama, he's a Quisling, just a place-holder for the money men until they find a Republican who's got some Goddamn manners, unlike George W. You don't want the natives getting too restless so you put in an ethnic minority fellow with a happy face who throws the game. Believe me, I know all about how that works."
"Even without President Obama," he continued, "the Democratic Party couldn't organize a funeral procession down a one-way street -- not even for their own funeral." He let go of my arm. "They don't know who to attack or who to defend. They're by default the 'not quite as nuts party' but most of them have been bought off, too."
I nodded and reached out and lightly put my hand on his shoulder. "If that's all true, Mr. President," I said, "what should people do about it?" He patted my arm and sat down in the molded plastic chair. "You've got to think outside the Goddamn box." A pause. "Uh, the thing is to get a majority of Americans on your side. Not on policies -- the policies can take care of themselves -- but on process, and I don't mean just a favorable story in the newspaper. This is bigger than that." "You mean," I could barely get the words out, "to bring down the U.S. government?!" "Exactly right, my friend," he said with a wide grin, "Exactly right. Take it from me: a real conservative. Just do like you would dealing with a rotten foreign government and you'll do alright. And now I've got to go. But good Goddamn luck!"
With that Richard Nixon gradually vanished, his nose being the last part of him to disappear. I woke up to the sound of a wood chipper, a lot across the street being cleared of brush.
Sunny, in the eighties. In DC, Spring is here.