This post is excerpted from Stephanie Miller's Sexy Liberal! Of Me I Sing, published by Love Puppet, Inc, 2015.
In 1964, my father, Congressman William E. Miller of New York, was chosen as the Republican nominee for Vice President of the United States by Senator Barry Goldwater. Mostly, Dad's job was to start nearly every speech by saying, "What Barry meant to say was..."
My dad and Barry were routed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and his running mate, Senator Hubert Humphrey, in a landslide of historic proportions. The Goldwater-Miller ticket carried just six states and lost by 16 million votes. I was three years old.
I have reason to think my mother believes that if I had just been a smidge more attractive, Dad and Barry might have won the election.
My mother once actually said on national television that I was an unattractive kid. (Later she claimed it was only a joke; now I know where I got that excuse from.) "You wouldn't have recognized Stephie when she was a child," she told the interviewer. When he asked why, she said, "Oh dear, she was a little ugly thing. She's had a lot of work done."
Who needs the National Enquirer when you have a Republican mom? That quote is now burned into my therapist's psyche:
"You see, doctor, my mom used to say that I was so ugly, she had to tie
a pork chop around my neck to get the dog to play with me..."
"I'm sorry, Stephanie, I'm afraid our time is up for this week."
"I was abandoned by wolves and raised by Republicans!!"
"Alright, Stephanie, time to adjust your meds again...."
I once showed a friend of mine the official Miller campaign photo. She said, "Oh my GOD, if he had just held a sack of potatoes instead of you, he might have at LEAST carried Idaho."
Here's me, the little spud:
Of course, I'm lucky my dad ran before campaigns had all those fancy, high-priced campaign consultants. I'm sure one of them would have said: "Yikes, Congressman, I'd just say you lost that youngest one in a nasty wood chipper accident or something." If they'd had the technology back then, I would have been Photo Shopped out, or at least made to look less like a wolf cub and more like Caroline Kennedy.
As the supposed offspring of a white father and an even whiter mother (she uses SPF 500 sun block), my parents went to great lengths to conceal the truth about their furry little cub. Like President Obama, I was born in 1961. Coincidence? I think not. Just like Barack, there's a similar controversy surrounding the facts of my birth. The certificate that my parents hastily manufactured is quite obviously a crude forgery. Thank God there were no psychotically persistent Birthers back in the sixties. Can you imagine Ted Cruz AND the John Birchers?! They would have all been howling wildly at the moon if the GOP had nominated a Vice President who had a secret wolf daughter.
When I was born, my father was not only a congressman, he was also the newly-elected Chairman of the Republican National Committee, which meant he had a national reputation to protect and he knew a wolf cub would not play well with the Republican base. While campaigning for some Republican candidate out west, he got the news from the traveling press corps that his wife, Stephanie, had gone into "labor" (that was just the cover story, since we all know how much Republicans dislike labor).
But before the reporters would accept any cigars from my delighted dad, they insisted on knowing the name of the newest Miller.
"Stephanie!" he announced, without hesitation.
This came as something of a shock to my mom, who had already decided that this small feral creature would never bear her name. Surprising though this information was for her, it's hardly the worst piece of news a political spouse has learned from the press. Compared to Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin, my mother had it easy.
People always ask me what I remember most from my father's 1964 campaign. I give the same answer that Shirley Temple uses to describe her early movies: "It feels like I'm looking at somebody else up there." To which I can only add, with all the love in my heart, fuck you, Shirley Temple. You had golden curls and a million dollar smile. I had a unibrow, a natural afro, and gray fangs. (Thanks for the tetracycline, Mom!) Teeth-wise I looked like a cross between Linc from "Mod Squad," and Austin Powers, I can only conjure up vague memories from that time, and I'm sure some of those are really just versions of stories I've heard from my family or things I've read. But the pictures don't lie about what a spooky little spud I was.
You know that old line about "victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan?" The day after the election, my parents dropped me off at the White House with a handwritten note pinned to my little potato-sack dress. It read:
Dear Lady Bird: Congratulations!
After you finish beautifying the highways,
why don't you take a crack at THIS.
There were two important lessons I learned from Dad's 1964 campaign, though they didn't sink in until many years later:
1) Things always look darkest just before it goes completely black
2) Somewhere when God shuts a door, he shuts a window too.
And then you're totally fucked.
After November '64, Dad was always clear that while some believe what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, his experience taught him what doesn't kill you leaves you politically invisible. Hence the title of my sister Libby's book about our father, "Bill Miller: Do You Know Me?" It was based on a highly successful series of American Express commercials from the seventies that featured once prominent public figures - like dad - who had become less well known over time. One thing I learned from my dad early on - if the joke is at your expense, tell it before someone else does!
I also remember Dad saying, "If I'd known we were going to lose by sixteen million votes, I never would have worked that hard." Then, as he did after every joke he told, he snorted uncontrollably. He had this volcanic snort, so every time he laughed the silverware flew off the table. It was messy yet heartwarming in a "Father Blows Best" kind of way.
Don't get me wrong, Dad remained an optimist throughout his entire life. And from someone who came across as so mild-mannered, he really was an incredibly funny man. Still, Dad wasn't comfortable letting loose with me until I was much older. It wasn't until I was in college that my father finally shared his more risqué side with me.
I remember that awkward night well when Dad first treated me like a grown-up. My parents took me and my roommate out to dinner. The conversation hit a lull, and my father, out of the blue, said, "Hey, Tina, how do you know a macho woman?"
My roommate, looking puzzled, said, "I don't know. How?"
My father, with a mischievous gleam in his eye: "She has a kick-starter on her vibrator!"
Then he laughed and snorted. The silverware flew. This, of course, elicited my mother's patented response (patent holder: June Cleaver), "Oh, Dear. Oh, Bill."
After the salt and pepper shakers spun to a stop, I stared agape at my parents for about ten seconds. Did my dad, Bill Miller, just tell me and my roommate a vibrator joke? What the...? I was a 20-year-old sexual unsophisticate and I'd barely even seen a sex toy at that point. I guess by 1981 the '60s free love revolution had finally made it up to Lockport. And...Mom? Eww. Is this how they started talking as soon as the baby cub left the den?
I think in many ways I got my ambition from my dad. Even before I had a sense of who he was or what he did, I knew that he was a great man. And I just wanted to do something great like him. I probably related more to him than to my mother in the sense that I looked at my mom and thought, "Hmm...washing pots and pans and raising children. That doesn't seem like the fun job. My dad's job seems much more glamorous. He gets lots of attention and seems very important."
Fame whore, anyone?
Reporters covering the 1964 campaign loved watching my father skewer the notoriously thin-skinned Lyndon Johnson. In fact, Barry Goldwater once joked that the reason he put Dad on the ticket was because of his ability to "drive LBJ nuts."
Since I was an adopted wolf cub, I suppose it's nurture not nature, but I have that same talent -- I just use it on random people who aren't president. But just for the hell of it, let me give it a political shot and we'll see how I do.
According to Miller family lore, one night, in a more amicable Washington era, LBJ reached across the aisle and asked my mom to dance at some fancy Capital ball. Well, that wasn't the only reach he made. According to my blushing mom, he also played a little grab-ass with her on the dance floor. Not exactly a surprise from the man who named his penis "Jumbo." Of course with those Texas- sized ears of his, he looked a lot more like Dumbo.
See? I just drove LBJ nuts POSTHUMOUSLY. Maybe I am Daddy's little girl after all!
My parents were on the campaign trail so much in 1964 that reporters came to our home in Lockport, NY, which is up the transit from Cheektowaga, Lackawanna, and Tonawanda--all Indian names for "I've got to get the fuck out of here. I'm freezing my tits off!" A couple of enterprising journalists decided to interview me and my brother, who was five years old. I was barely three. They showed us a picture of our parents. I pointed to it and said, "Oh yes, I remember them."
Can you say GAFFE? My father and mother returned home immediately. They stayed just long enough to gag me and my brother -- they even taught me how to write my name for the express purpose of making me sign a nondisclosure agreement. Based on that interview alone (my first!), huge swaths of the electorate started peeling away. I bet I did more to convert Republican voters to the other side with that one remark than everything I've said in the last decade on "The Stephanie Miller Show." By age 4, my most persuasive years were already behind me.
Here's Mom and Dad as I remember them best from 1964 (they're on the left, if only compared to the Goldwaters):
Check out Dad's skinny tie and narrow lapels. I bet I could get some Hollywood hipster to pay me $1,200 for that suit tomorrow. And look at my beautiful mother -- wouldn't you want to cop a little feel? My parents just thought it was the proper thing to do to leave me and my brother at home. It taught us the traditional American value of self-reliance. And it kept the national press corps from photographing my unibrow.
What they didn't know (at least I like to think they didn't know), was that their travels on the campaign trail fit in perfectly with my brother's long-term plan to once again become the youngest Miller child.
Though my parents' political trips surely made it easier for him, my brother's attempts to kill me predated the '64 campaign . Notice I said "attempts" -- with an "s." I'm sure he would call it euthanasia, but his loving motivation was completely lost on me at the time.
He was the original Death Panel. He once tried to hang me by fashioning a noose, which he hung from the banister. He had a chair all set up.
"Stephie," he beckoned, "step up here and come put your neck in this."
Like a good little sister, I came skipping over and said, "Okay!" What did I know from nooses? I was three.
And then he pulled the chair away and I went, "FLAGARKEN!" which was wolf language for, "GO GET MOM!" But with my neck in the noose, it didn't translate all that well. He heard, "Pull it tighter, Bill!"
If anything can be compared to the look of horror on a mother's face when she sees her youngest child hanging by the neck, it might only be the look on the face of one of Newt Gingrich's wives as he approaches her hospital bed with papers in his hand. All I can remember now is my mother shrieking "Cut her down, Billy! CUT HER DOWN!!"
Which, in my brother's defense, he did. He was the original "compassionate conservative."
Yes, you're saying, "Sibling rivalry, I know about that." But did your brother have the foresight to dig a grave for you in the fruit cellar? Mine did. Then he forgot about it. One day my mother went down there to get something for dinner and she fell right into the trench that had been intended for me.
Sure enough, I was the one who got blamed. After all, it was my grave.
A firm defender of the 2nd Amendment, my brother would also routinely shoot me with his BB gun. In fairness to him, a one-man militia, I should note that he always gave me a running head start. In fact, the words I remember most from my childhood were "Run, Stephie, run!" I was sort of like a Catholic girl Forrest Gump, but in an incredibly ugly plaid jumper. I do remember in our uneven grade school arms race, that he gave me his hand-me-down bb gun pistol which shot cock-eyed (a harbinger of my later aversion to all things cock-related) to defend myself with, while he had a fancy new state of the art pump action bb rifle. All I remember is hearing the pumping sound before the inevitable "THWACK" sound, as a high-velocity bb arrived in my fleeing back, catapulting me into our well-trimmed Republican hedges.
You can always trust, but verify, that a Republican is going to cheat in an arms race. And possibly illegally arm some right wing rebel friends of theirs, as well.
My brother and I had another game -- well, he called it a game, I called it "once again fleeing for my life from my murderous demon-seed sibling." Being an avid football fan, he would yell "Butkus!" which referred to Dick Butkus, the fearsome linebacker for the Chicago Bears in the 60's and early 70's. "Butkus!" would be my cue to run screaming for my life, until my brother t caught up with me and held me down like a football in the end zone.
I'll never forget the day he tackled me right into my mother's Ming vase. (I don't know if it actually was a Ming vase, but it just sounds like something expensive a '70's mom would have... if you need an '80's reference, it was the glass "egg" from the film Risky Business.) If you need a '90's reference, you're on your own, you little whippersnappers.... and get off my lawn. Anyway, upon impact, it promptly shattered into a million pieces. In an eerie foreshadowing of how Tea Party Republicans would later blame President Obama for all the crises he was pushed into, Bill immediately pointed to me and said, "Look what you did. Mom's going to kill you."
And in a similar foreshadowing of how the press would later handle the Republicans' blatant partisanship and obstructionism, my Mom punished BOTH OF US EQUALLY for "playing in the house." For Bill, it was a never-ending exercise in world domination. My side of "playing in the house" was more like my personal version of Lord of the Flies.
My brother also had another really fun "game" in which he would hold me down, and drip toothpaste into my face. Although, once again in his defense (liberals always see the other person's point of view), I should say that he sucked it back up into his mouth before it actually hit my face, so it really was just an early pre-Gitmo version of waterboarding -- but minty, and in very slow motion.
It's sort of ironic that my Dad had been an assistant prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, when most of what my brother was doing to me in our own home could technically be categorized as war crimes, and yet it seemed to escape his attention entirely. When I would tell my father what went on in the name of fun while he was at work, he would give one of his signature snorts, pat me and the head and knock back his evening drink. Somehow the Geneva Conventions never came up.
By the way, in case my brother's feeling at all litigious, I should add at this point that I also have incredibly fond memories of eating cereal and watching cartoons with him in the big red chair in our den on Saturday mornings. I've been told this is what is known as "Stockholm Syndrome," where one bonds with one's torturer, but when you're sitting together with a bowl of Fruit Loops and sugary milk, anything can be forgiven.
I love you, Bill. (Side note: Bill's a lawyer.)
My mother, God bless her, is still a loyal Republican at the age of 92 and has such a great big heart. I wish I could have half the grace and class she has, but if it hasn't happened by now -- and God knows it hasn't -- it's not terribly likely that it's ever going to. Of course if I did have my mother's elegance and style, I could never pull off the live teabagging demonstration on stage during my Sexy Liberal! comedy show. Did I mention that The New York Times called that part of the act "A Chaplinesque example of wordless political theater?" If I didn't mention that, it's because they didn't say it. But as Hustler put it in their glowing review, "It's Stephanie Miller's bold artistic attempt to demonstrate the Tea Party's influence on the body politic based on her astonishing personal knowledge of the Kama Sutra."
My family is fair and unbalanced. Do any of you come from a mixed family? If so, you know exactly what I'm talking about here.
How Republican is my Mom? Her bird masturbates to Fox News. Seriously. I've seen it ...and I then had to use steel wool to scrape the image from my mind's eye forever. He's a lovebird -- in this case, "love" meaning "likes to rub one out to Gretchen Carlson."
His name is "Pretty Boy," he is tethered to a colorful chain, and as soon as Mom turns on the TV, he starts rocking back and forth. When Sean Hannity really gets going, calling the President a Muslim... Kenyan...Socialist... the bird starts getting really excited, rocking faster and faster. Feathers flying everywhere, he keeps rocking and rocking, until suddenly there's this loud, disgusting birdgasm sound. Then he just lays down on his little chain, spent. And proud to be an American.
She is still in mourning over Glenn Beck leaving Fox. I once said to her, "You know, Mom, I got a lot of death threats from Glenn Beck's crazy fans. "Oh, Stephie" -- she really has said this -- "I don't appreciate you calling Glenn Beck's fans crazy."
Um...maybe she missed the part about...oh, never mind.
I think if one of his fans only winged me with a wild shot or the Book of Mormon hurled at my head -- nothing fatal, just a little blood loss -- she'd still attend his press conference.
"Oh, Glenn, Stephie's gotten so radical. Don't blame yourself. I'm sure it was something she said."
My Mom actually wrote a fan letter to George W. Bush about how he was THE GREATEST PRESIDENT WE'VE EVER HAD. She had me sit in front of her while she read the whole thing out loud. Slowly. She is part of that great generation that still considers proper enunciation a patriotic virtue. Of course, since Mom doesn't have a computer because, like the cell phone, it is a liberal tool of Satan, it was hand-written, and did I mention VERY long? Roget's Thesaurus doesn't have as many synonyms for "manly" as she had in the first paragraph.
Me: "Uh huh. Uh huh. Right. Uh huh. Okay, Mom , well that was nice. I think he's a war criminal."
You know what she said? Of course you do.
Mom: "Oh, Stephie, you've gotten so radical."
My mom is the kind of person -- don't get me wrong, I love her so dearly -- but my mom is the kind of Republican who believes that no Republican is ever bad. So if George W. Bush had fucked a sheep on the White House lawn and then set it on fire, my mother would have said, "Oh, Stephie, the President's doing the best he can. The sheep looked lonely. And cold. Why do you hate America so much?"
I've told my mother how much I admire her and Dad for the way they protected us from being exploited for cheap political purposes. My mother and father came from an era when vice presidential candidates had the innate decency not to use their small children as campaign props.
Unlike my father's era, we now live in a time when "family values" is just a slogan used to win votes. And, yes, I'm talkin' about you, Caribou Barbie. (By the way, and just for the record, it should be noted that I was the very first person to tag Sarah Palin with that nickname. Then everybody started using it. Damn! Why didn't I trademark it when she was still relevant?)
When that pouty-mouthed Eddie Munster, Paul Ryan, was picked as Mitt Romney's running mate, I was touched when Rachel Maddow used the occasion to say some really nice things about my dad:
"One more thing about Bill Miller, Barry Goldwater's pick for vice president in 1964. Yes, Bill Miller and Barry Goldwater got beaten really, really badly in 1964, the Republicans' worst presidential showing ever. Johnson and the Democrats beat them by over twenty points. And, yes, Bill Miller was lost enough to obscurity that a decade later he did one of those American Express "Do You Know Me?" ads where the whole idea of the ad was, of course, that you didn't know who this person was.
But there's one thing about Bill Miller besides being Barry Goldwater's vice president and being in that American Express ad and his previous career in politics and the military, there's one thing that really does survive the years about Bill Miller, for which he still to this day is totally, justifiably famous in a very positive way. And that is that he is Stephanie Miller's dad! Stephanie Miller, the high priestess of excellent liberal talk radio. Her dad was Bill Miller, Barry Goldwater's vice president. And it is conclusive evidence of a life well lived that she is his daughter."
What a kind thing -- even though I consider myself to be the least of my father's accomplishments. She also called him a true conservative, in contrast to today's party of reflexive reactionary rigidity, and graciously acknowledged my father's long career in public life. And she even mentioned me. (It helps that Rachel's own dad, Bob, listens to my show daily, and emails me every so often. Rachel actually once told me: "My Dad calls me EVERY DAY to tell me what you said on your show that morning." I can only imagine what's in her thought bubble: "Ok, Dad, I'm a Rhodes scholar with an incredibly successful television career.... she tells fart jokes. But thanks for the news update!" I actually once spilled wine on every member of the Maddow family simultaneously, including Rachel and her lovely mother, Elaine, at an event in Seattle in the early days of progressive radio, in some sort of really awkward liberal baptism. Rachel was the moderator of that event, and I recall as she took audience questions on cue cards, she remarked that the most frequent question asked was: "Will Stephanie sign my ass after this event?" It's a wonder anyone in that family still associates with me in ANY way, though I like to think that it's because they all credit that moment with being the final catalyst that clearly spurred her to such great heights...and as far away from ME as possible.
Sadly, my own dad passed just after I graduated college, as I'll get to later. I obviously learned neither oratory nor political strategy from him, just as he had no talent for imitating Katharine Hepburn. He wasn't the kind of person for whom politics was just self-promotion and theatrics. I know that my father didn't fully understand my desire to become a performer. But he always supported and loved me unconditionally.
My mother, thank God, is still with us. I've been fortunate to have her love and support for my entire adult life. Some kids don't get to keep publicly embarrassing their parents with dick jokes past puberty. I'm one lucky cub.
Dad's service to our country and his courage still inspire me every day. It's been more than thirty years since we lost him, but I will miss him always. As I said, I wanted to be great like him. That sure didn't happen, but like him I can tell a great vibrator joke. And I am incredibly proud to be his daughter.