After sitting out most of the election season at my home in Mexico, I was happy to return to the States last week to witness the political hoo-ha for myself. I was thrilled to see about four Obama signs in upstate New York for every McCain placard. I was encouraged when my godson, a senior at West Point, told me that he thought his fellow cadets would split 50-50 Democrat and Republican.
I was feeling good about the political state of the country until I stopped for a visit with an old friend in Greenwich, Connecticut. At a dinner party last weekend, I heard something that deeply unsettled me.
Ten of us, most of whom I hadn't met before, were gathered in the lovely dining room -- china and crystal set before us. Everyone around me was quite well -- well-groomed, well-educated, well-placed, even though financial turmoil was shaking the hedge fund capital of America (on my way to my friend's house I had seen a sleek antique Porsche parked in front of an estate with a hand-lettered "For Sale by Owner" sign).
As I talked to the charming man to my left, I heard a bit of a kerfuffle to my right. The dinner table conversation had slid to politics and most of the voices were Republican, but I did hear an Obama supporter stand her ground. With my right ear, I listened to a woman in her early 50s across the table mock Obama as "The One" and "The Messiah" and scorn his policy for spreading the wealth. Then she dropped this bomb: "You know if I ever opened the newspaper and read headlines that something tragic had befallen Barack Obama, I tell you I wouldn't shed a tear."
My spoon froze on its way to my mouth. I heard our host, a Republican, shout at the woman, his sister. "How can you say that? That is beyond the pale. That is simply beyond the pale!"
There was much more screeching and protesting, but the woman repeated her explosive comment once again, justifying her horrid thought with: "I'm just being honest."
Two other guests, including the Obama supporter, left the table to check on a football game in the den and stayed away for quite a while. The nice man beside me was going on about a best-selling writer he once met. I looked at the beautiful pineapple dessert in front of me and knew I wouldn't finish it.
Welcome back to the part of America that elected George Bush, I thought.
I could barely look at the cold-hearted woman the rest of the night, even though she was gregarious and effusive with me. She hugged me before she left and I wondered why it wouldn't occur to her that she had offended me. Was she so oblivious, so arrogant in her opinions that she couldn't see how her comment had made her look to me -- despite her silky blonde hair and a face full of effort -- as ugly as the masks my sons like for Halloween, the ones with features that appear as if they're dripping like candle wax.
That night as I lay in bed, I tried to imagine what could cause someone to hate so freely and unabashedly. I have despised George Bush from Day One -- even pre-Day One -- but I know for certain I have never said anything so vile. I'm sure I couldn't even think it.
I can only surmise that the woman is terrified as her world order is about to be turned on its head. After so long with her breed is on top, she sees only one possible chance of clinging to her little corner of privilege. How terrible that there are people, even "refined, well-mannered" people, who are so self-interested, so self-serving that they have lost a basic sense of humanity. This woman is the more presentable version of the race-baiters at Palin rallies and the Timothy-McVeigh-like nutjobs who were arrested for plotting an Obama hit. But she's from the same gene pool.
I went to sleep saying a prayer to keep Obama safe from the crazy, alarming elements of our country. I'll say this little prayer every night up until the election -- and then every night, I hope, for eight more years.