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Jazz, Politics, Edward Kennedy and the Ghosts of Richard Nixon: Our American Dialogue and the Hatfields and McCoys

Carl L. Hager By

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Pauline and Richard. I really miss those two. I sometimes got so angry reading her brilliant prose as she flayed my favorite directors, like Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey, or actors, like Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston in Rancho Deluxe, whose performances were rendered with letter-perfect Montana sensibilities... or when she praised bad acting, like the strangely cast Slim Pickens, again in Rancho Deluxe, playing his role like he was from another planet in the same cracked voice he always used whenever he put on a Stetson. But I used to get even angrier at Richard Nixon—along with everyone else in the Woodstock generation—for all the usual reasons, for Viet Nam, for the Draft, for Kent State, for Watergate, for John Lennon's immigration blockade, but mostly for looking so frightened and sheepish when he finally resigned, because when he and everything he stood for finally flew away from the White House on August 9th, 1974, he took away the things I disagreed with and hated and thought about and cared about the most. Because in the end, shadowboxing is never as fun as landing a real punch. That's what sparring partners like Richard and Pauline are for. Each of you wears headgear. Nobody gets hurt.

The Antidote

My neighbor sometimes sticks a sign in his nice front lawn during the political season, but in the 18 years we've lived across the street from each other, we've never really discussed politics. The vicissitudes of our two versions of self-employment, or the cost of supporting his two collegiate kids in a collapsed national economy, yes. Sports, jazz, literature, yes. Politics, almost never. It doesn't come up in conversation. He's never asked me how I will vote (or have voted) in an election, or what my party affiliation is, and I've never asked him. We both have a pretty good idea of what the other's political views are, which are occasionally contrary to our own. But if he has something he wants to talk about, I just let him talk about it. If what he has to say has a political angle, that isn't what is important—what is important is that it concerns him. So I listen. He isn't a member of a class or category to me, he's a friend.

He told me a story about his college days that says more about his politics than any lawn sign. He says he and a friend made a pilgrimage to upstate New York to see a writer they both admired, one I also admire greatly, the novelist Frederick Exley. They found him in a local Watertown bar and had drinks with him—though they were probably out-quaffed two drinks to each one of theirs. Published in 1968 and subtitled A Fictional Memoir, Exley's A Fan's Notes is one of the most radical novels written in the 20th century. Likely begun when he was institutionalized in Harlem Valley State Hospital in Dover, New York, it is brilliantly written prose that combines self-deprecating hilarity with the chilling truths of self-discovery, warts, bunions, calluses, contusions and all. Though it bears a passing resemblance to Ken Kesey's great One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, published a few years earlier, it bears a greater one to Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Exley's novel dives so deep, and in such a distinctive and personal voice, that a reader cannot escape the knowledge of what it is to be obsessed—with football heroes, greatness, manic and maniacal creativity, the next sweet breath of life. The politics of locking up Frederick Exley in a madhouse and treating him like a prisoner of some spiritual war, bombarding this soul with electro-convulsive shock, goes beyond any humane version of politics into the deathly realm of enforced will. It is useful to be reminded often of why Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, defending himself against some ignorant bigots who opposed his election, that ..."I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

I learn a lot by talking to my neighbor. The topic is rarely as important as the fact that we are talking and listening to each other. Displaying a little friendly common sense and genuine concern for another human being go beyond any political party or category of social interaction. It is simply friendship.

So my plan for the summer is to make some new friends, and encourage people I know to do the same. I want to meet and talk to and befriend Liberals, Conservatives, Libertarians, Independents, Democrats, Republicans, Union Members, Non-Union Members, Gays, Straights, Socialists, Capitalists, Lance Armstrong Fans, Lance Armstrong Detractors...

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