I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I was raised by an American patriot, a U.S. Air Force pilot who did, in fact, have the Right Stuff in every fiber of his being.
You know that phrase, right? Brought to national consciousness by the Tom Wolfe book about astronauts (The Right Stuff, 1979), this phrase has come to mean, in the very best sense, someone who embodies the qualities of courage, confidence, dependability, toughness, and daring. Someone who always chooses the high road, who always does the right thing, the fair, honest, trustworthy thing. Someone who doesn’t lie or make excuses.
I am just old enough to remember a time when just being American gave you the assumption of having the Right Stuff. You might say I drank the Kool-Aid of the American Myth. But I was raised by members of the Greatest Generation, people who worked hard, sacrificed for their country (and their kids), who believed in the nation and its founding principles, and who not only believed that American myth, they embodied everything good about the myth.
But they’re gone now, and I don’t believe the myth any more.
The reason I don’t believe it is the behavior of Republican Party. The party of Lincoln, they like to remind us, but don’t you believe that for a minute. As this article notes, Lincoln would be horrified by today’s GOP; he would identify much more with Democrats. (In fact, the Republicans and Democrats have essentially swapped platforms. So enough with the the false equivalencies, meme makers.) As recently as the 1950s and ’60s, Republicans in our nation’s capital played an important role in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (shepherded by a Democratic president), righting—or beginning the process of righting—so many wrongs caused by the Civil War. (Read about this here. And here.)
But something happened.
I started noticing it—the fraying of the fabric of the Right Stuff—in 2000, with those hanging chads in Florida. It was astonishing to see the GOP send a hoard of lawyers and PR people down to Florida to meddle, to control (to take over!), to shape the story rather than to just keep an eye on it, to win at all costs—and to ultimately steal the election from the rightful winner, Al Gore Jr., a Democrat. In a recount of all undervotes and overvotes conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, Gore emerged the victor under all standards. In his account of the election (Too Close to Call, which is on my bookshelves as I write), Jeffrey Toobin observed, “[I]t is a crime against democracy that [Gore] did not win the state and thus the presidency. …The wrong man was inaugurated on January 20, 2001.”
That wrong man, George W. Bush, ushered in an era of strongly partisan politics that continues today. (I won’t even get into his many inadequacies, but I’ll say this: I believe in my heart that my father, a lifelong Republican who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, would have been so disgusted by Bush’s failure to fulfill the requirements of his military service contract that he would not have voted for him. Daddy believed in being a person of your word. Don’t get me started on those awful Swift Boat Vets, who are as far away from the Right Stuff as you can get. Shame on them. Seriously: shame on them for the lies they told.)
It was clear to me, in 2001, that the Republican party had cheated to obtain power. It was clear to me that there was, in fact, a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” and its intentions were to win at any cost.
And if they didn’t win, they would obstruct government. We now know that while Barack Obama was celebrating his first inauguration, there was a secret meeting of Republican party leadership—who planned to obstruct his every move. This is a fact, not fake news, for those of you inclined to that sort of naysaying. Journalist Robert Draper’s book Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, reports that the GOP began plotting Obama’s defeat on the night of his first inauguration. This is not governance, people. This is not the Right Stuff.
It’s shameful, really.
And it was obvious, even before it was verified by our strong free press. “Nevermind the nation was falling off the fiscal cliff. Nevermind the global economic system was hanging in the balance. Nevermind we were on the verge of another Great Depression,” the Washington Post says. “When the nation needed single-minded focus, the Republican political establishment put power over the national interest” (emphasis mine). It wasn’t just in Washington. All over the country, Republican-controlled statehouses passed voter suppression laws, to remove voters from the rolls, to make it difficult for minority voters to be heard. This is more of that winning-at-all-costs thing, and it disgusts me. When we needed the Right Stuff, we got, instead, Republicans.
I should call them, probably, Tea Party Republicans—which is not the old-school Republican party of my parents (nor a few of my friends). This Republican party has declared war on people like me, to its detriment and to its great loss. I was raised (by my Republican daddy) on Right Stuff thinking, the thinking that says we need all voices and viewpoints at the table. Two heads are better than one and all that. Or, as they say, e pluribus unum (from many, one):
This shared foundation has been our motto from the earliest days. It’s an incredibly unique goal for governing, rarely successful throughout human history. It’s built around the simple truth that there is strength in unity, so we should seek it. Unity does not require agreement in all things. That is impossible. Unity is strongest, in fact, when it is diverse. Real unity is a setting aside of some disagreements and distinctions to rally around a central vision. This is the hard work of democracy.
Sadly, my daddy’s Right Stuff thinking apparently was lost on my Republican brother, about whom I’ve written previously. And he and his ilk, the Tea Party, brought us Trump, who is, it’s painfully obvious, the opposite of the Right Stuff.
He is, not to put too fine a point on it, mentally and morally deficient. I’m not going to bother to back up that statement with links because at this point you know it as well as I do. There were the lies, the rallies, the speaking to his supporters’ basest instincts. Lying. Ridiculing the disabled. Lock her up, throw them out. People of color being beat up. Pussy grabbing. Lying and more lying. And registered Republicans standing by, holding their noses, perhaps, but not speaking out against any of this.*
Even now, I have friends who continue to mouth the let’s-give-him-a-chance mantra, in spite of the mounting evidence that the 2016 election was manipulated by Russia—Russia! A hostile foreign power, for heaven’s sake! If this doesn’t enrage and unsettle you, it may be that you have placed ideology above preservation of the American way (as in “truth, justice, and …”). Or, as I say, lack of the Right Stuff.
Not long ago, someone I once worked with (he is a Tea Party Republican, lives here in my town) called me, on Facebook, “the enemy.” Not in a general sense. He called me by name, and told me that—because I’d just expressed my opinon—at least now he knew I was the enemy. About this warlike language, the author of the article I’ve quoted above says, “It is this sort of tribal thinking that we have seen wreck civilizations throughout history. The great American experiment is unique in so many ways but one of the most unique attributes is this voluntary setting aside of certain tribal priorities and desires for a shared greater good. We dare not dismiss these strong tribal divisions. They are deepening, not healing.” (Emphasis mine.)
The enemy. I gotta tell ya, that gave me a chill.
Some years ago I was told to my face I couldn’t possibly be a Democrat and a Christian. No, really. I’ve been called a hater by an old friend. Every few days my brother posts something on Facebook about haters (by which he means, I think, Democrats) or libtards (by which he means, I think, Democrats). Right after he unfriended me, he posted this: “Someone unfriending you because of your anti-liberal post is kind of like the garbage taking out itself.” Now, aside from the fact that, again, he unfriended me, how was I supposed to interpret that? I’ll tell you: that I—Democrat that I am from that day in 1971 when I first registered to vote—am garbage. And you know what? I’m at peace with that. I can look myself in the mirror.
And, strangely, I feel more like the hated than a hater.
I was raised to be fair, tell the truth, to treat others the way I would want to be treated (with kindness and respect, among other things). These are Right Stuff qualities, and though I know I sometimes fail, I do strive for them. I was raised to be competitive, to go after the things I wanted, but that winning in and of itself was not the goal. “Winning at all costs” is not the sort of human being I was raised to be. Winning at all costs is not a Right Stuff characteristic.
And failing to speak up when there is clearly something seriously wrong here is not a trait of those with the Right Stuff either. (The Washington Post says, “It remains unclear whether Republicans will ever act ‘as if larger principles are at stake,’” as they did during the Watergate investigation.) As I write, with new revelations daily about Trump and his associates’ Russian connections, there is just barely an inquiry, nothing that could really be called an investigation. Some Republicans, in fact, continue to obstruct calls for such an investigation.**
We’ve lost the narrative of the Right Stuff, y’all. And the longer we go with one party placing power and winning above country and people, we will continue to be lost.
* Well, at least two I know of—George Will and Max Boot—have spoken out and publicly left the party.
** Before I finished this piece, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. It’s a start.