A huge throng, thousands of people crowding the Rio hotel casino in Las Vegas. Mayhem. In the large, beige-walled, chandelier-lit corridor that night, hundreds of people were shouting, crying, laughing, running headlong, aimlessly, just out of sheer excitement. Excitement, pleasure and relief like I’ve never seen before or since, like a Super Bowl we’d won ourselves. People weeping, strangers embracing, people on their friends’ shoulders or riding piggyback. The fact is we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. You’d just hold your hand out and one after another people would come and smack your outstretched palm so hard it hurt, because Barack Obama had just been elected president.
I’d spent the last month of the campaign canvassing in North Las Vegas, in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods; I drove a rented PT Cruiser full of young Latinx guys around. It was a lot of fun, even taking into account the drunk kid who hung fragrantly around for a week or so, and the brilliant but moody Mario (“Are you a Mario today… or a Waaaario?” I’d ask.) We spoke in Spanglish and they introduced me to Rock en Español, which I’ve retained a taste for. With all Ramon knew about Mexican and Cuban music, his favorite band was Weezer. When voters or fellow organizers were rude or mean we’d murmur to one another: “No Drama… Obama.”
The campaign found accommodation for me in a cozy house belonging to the late State Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, a wonderful person whom I came to love. In the evening, after a hard day’s work—she Assemblywomaning, me canvassing—we’d watch Rachel Maddow, hoist a glass of red wine and toast Sarah Palin, cackling pleasantly.
Peggy had come into politics through her union. She’d worked her way up through the casino world. She told me once that Las Vegas was the only city in America where a single woman with a high school education could earn and save enough money to buy her own house. On a different day, I asked her how much the Vegas economy depended on people being ill, on gambling addiction. She didn’t hesitate for an instant: The Vegas economy would not exist without gambling addiction, she said. Her house was modest, clean, comfortable. A peaceful corner in what she accepted as a brutal world.
Awareness, wit, intelligence, charm, elegance—everything the current inhabitants of the White House cannot summon one atom of, to show you conclusively that money cannot buy any of these things—everything I grew up wanting to learn and cultivate, all are united in Barack and Michelle Obama. They are a delight to behold, as parents, as partners, as human beings insofar as celebrities can be known as human beings, their marriage evidently brimming with mutual loyalty, regard and open affection. Barack Obama is an intellectual, and loves Niebuhr. He is a delightfully clumsy dancer—perfection demands some little flaw, and his is a slight nerdiness that inclines people to compare him to Mr. Spock. He is slim and fit and quick with a joke, it grieves me to go on. What’s not to like?
The first thing not to like was his failure to prosecute everyone responsible for the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and other torture sites, which was evident in April of the first year of his presidency. Obama’s earliest and most shocking moral failure—most shocking for being the first, and so entirely unexpected—came home recently to roost in the form of Gina Haspel, who in a better world would have been called to account for those crimes. Instead she is now the director of the CIA. I could go on, but I won’t, because in 2014 Obama literally spoke the words “We tortured some folks” and he did not prosecute the people who “tortured some folks” and that is a sickening enough memory for me to foreclose the rest.
Each failure of accountability, each time Obama contented himself with the form of probity, rather than its difficult and painful exercise, brought us here.
The two people I remember best from canvassing ten years ago in Las Vegas lived in the same shabby apartment building, of a kind common in western states: Two squat stories built around a paved courtyard with a flight of pebbled cement stairs at either end. In terms of mnemonic indelibility, these two handily beat out both the hellaciously angry Republican lady who chased me about thirty yards into a parking lot, and also the young cop who very nearly busted me on a DUI after I’d recklessly ingested a bucket-sized martini on an empty stomach with some pals who’d come in from L.A. to volunteer.
The first of these two men lived upstairs and his name was Amy, the first time I’d seen this name on a man—short for Amos, I thought it must be. He had long hair and had lost a lot of teeth, he had the air of an old rock and roller, and he subjected me to an absolutely furious harangue regarding the depredations of the ruling class on the rest of us, every word of which I agreed with completely; it was anybody’s guess who was doing the canvassing. “Whin’s it all gonna trickle DAAAAAAyown?” he demanded.
“Yeah it won’t,” I agreed sadly.
Downstairs, I knocked on another door and was greeted by a massive gammon of a man, no shirt, so very pink. He’d been marked on my sheet as a “likely Democratic voter,” erroneously. When he figured out whom I was supporting his face congested into a far less ham-like shade and texture, growing more like a blistering tomato. I thought for a second he might literally hit me. But he just hissed instead.
“Yurr sillin’ a laaaaaahhhh!!”
Dude’s aura, as well as his body, were just so red mad and nude that it took me a long while to even work out what he was saying.
“You’re selling a lie.”
An old friend once told me that we are all frustrated characters in a Greek tragedy who can only feel shame when our eyes remain intact in the face of our many sins. A phrase I recall often.
But… you know how you’re supposed to make good things happen by Visualizing, I’m going to try to do that now, just to prove that I don’t entirely believe that this is the end of all things, just to demonstrate that my imagination is intact, still fully operational and wild as ever.
I’m visualizing a world where people respond to the real possiblity of extinction by concentrating on not ruining the Earth, and they all realize together, in concert—the people who run corporations and governments (by means of free and fair elections), and people who admire, and buy or don’t buy cars and Pellegrino and plane tickets—that every moment of every life and every decision made everywhere has to be included in and serve this effort. So that truth itself is reconstituted, until “world-class” glamor like Obama’s, or the wealth of Bezos or Zuckerberg are recognized as non-virtues, as old-fashioned and entirely beside the point as piety and churchgoing eventually became, after a many-centuries-long spell of being “in.”
Then everyone, corporate “persons” and ordinary ones (I’m visualizing, as a purely imaginative exercise) all stop wanting to burn fossil fuels, stop making plastics entirely, and instead of “upward mobility” which turns out to be the exact opposite of that, in typical human fashion, human culture as an integrated whole focuses instead on promoting the survival, education and general wellbeing of the world’s people, the world’s children; concentrates on cleaning the earth of the foulness with which we’ve burdened it, the plastic and garbage in the sea, and the smoke and pollutants in the air; learns how to remove the carbon from the air and replant the forests and restore the coral, so that the goals of humanity are both much larger and much smaller than before. And it all works, and the seas are cleared and do not rise, and the air is cleansed and cooled, with our help the earth heals itself, and in the knowledge that there really is enough to eat and a clean place to sleep, for everyone, prosperity finally comes—real prosperity, which is everyone having enough. Which is peace.