I’m reading Lou Cannon’s President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, a 1991 biography of our first celebrity president. Cannon’s book opens with a cinematic retelling of the morning of January 20, 1989, the Gipper’s last day in office after eight years of smiling his way through the presidency. The author renders the scene as if that day were monumental, which it was for Mr. and Mrs. Reagan.
But for me? Not so much. I don’t remember what I did on January 20 of this year, much less 1989, but I can make a reasonable guess. That morning I woke up in a cheap Hollywood apartment, dragged myself off of a thin foam mattress that lay on the floor, dressed in cheap, tired clothes that weren’t too threadbare, and went to work at a record store on the corner of Sunset of Vine. At lunch I sat in the store’s back room and ate beans and a tortilla. I was too broke to afford anything from the McDonald’s across the street from the store.
The last day of Reagan’s presidency was just another daily grind for me as was almost every other day during the previous eight years, though a few presidential days from the ’80s stand out. I remember the night of Dutch’s 1980 election, but only because I spent it watching the returns with a couple whom I embraced as a second set of parents. I remember the day that the president was shot, but mostly because on the same day my hamster died and I wrecked a bicycle (not that those incidents were related). The night we bombed Libya my buddy and I sat on a Tybee Island beach, wondering if this was the beginning of a war that we would be drafted to fight.
This is how most of my president-related memories go: trying to understand the Watergate coverage my father watched while we ate TV dinners from crinkly aluminum trays; doodling peanut-shaped Carter caricatures in the margins of my fifth grade classwork; watching H.W. Bush’s television war from a Hollywood producer’s office.
There were the pop culture touch points, too: Doonesbury, Saturday Night Live, Nixon masks, Carson monologues, punk rock, music videos, classic movie lines like Raising Arizona’s “I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn’t easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House.”
Saying that I didn’t care about politics would be an overstatement, like saying that I didn’t care about the weather. The weather is simply a background piece of data that we adapt to. If it’s cold outside we wear coats. Rain might compel us to carry umbrellas. Hot days are good for complaining, or alternately professing gratitude that it’s a dry heat. I’ve known less than a handful of people who cared about the weather beyond basic planning or small talk, and those guys were amateur meteorologists.
Similarly, my ears perked up when a storm was coming, but otherwise for the overwhelming majority of my life politics was at best a topic for small talk. It was just there, inevitable, not demanding my attention for much more than headlines, elections, and pop culture references. It’s not that I didn’t care, but rather that living my own life was more important than obsessing over what was going on in the state and federal capitals.
Like my meteorologist friends, though, I knew a few people who were political junkies–amateur wonks who loved to get down into the weeds of strategy, policy, and what not. My buddy Gerry knew everything that was going on, and incidentally he always seemed stressed out. He left the record store business when he got on at CNN. Another pal of mine took a job at the White House, but aside from funny anecdotes we never talked shop. These guys were the exception, though. Most of the people I knew had other interests. Like me, they were too busy living their lives to obsess over government.
That’s all changed, at least in my social circle. I suspect our current president’s pathological need for attention is part of that, but perhaps our own desire for validation is an equal cause: When all of social media is ranting about Political Issue of the Day, of course we want to be part of the conversation. And then there’s talk radio and 24 hour news, two outlets that have literally turned politics into entertainment.
I think I prefer the way it used to be, when politics was no more than the weather to most of us and only wonks were wonks. Living in America is hard enough. We all have our own burdens to shoulder, after all–who has the time or energy to worry about whether Mr. Politician is being abused by the media, or whether Congressman So-And-So from a state we don’t even live in is up for reelection?
And so while I still rant now and then about current political events, I’ve made an effort to get off the wonky carousel. I’ve turned off the Weather Channel, so to speak: No more late night talk show hosts, no 24 hour news, no instant news at all. I’ve tuned my social media feeds to receive a minimum of political ranting. Washington could be burning today for all I know, but Electric Light Orchestra is spinning on my turntable, outside my window the sun is shining, and a batch of fresh salsa waits for me in the kitchen.
What will I be doing on January 20, 2021? I have no idea, but whatever it is I’ll be too busy trying to stand up and fly straight to worry about the sumbitch in the White House.