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September 17, 2010

New Extremism

Roy Meachum

“Extremism in the defense of liberty…Moderation in the pursuit of freedom is no virtue.” Sen. Barry Goldwater (R., AZ) defended his conservatism in the 1964 presidential race against incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson.


My voting station that year was the Chevy Chase library. We lived no more than several blocks away, on Livingston and Broad Branch. Young Roy walked me up Connecticut Avenue. His Lafayette School was off that day. Contracting his mother’s anti-war fever, Roy opposed Republican Goldwater; the media had yet to direct their furies at the man from West Texas, and Mr. Johnson was still honored for pushing through Congress the major Civil Rights bills; Jack Kennedy only talked about and that Mr. Goldwater wanted repealed.


All during those several blocks, I teased my second son; not saying directly, but strongly hinting, I would cast my ballot for the Arizona senator. As usual, he kept his mouth shut, not wanting to contradict me. I poured it on, as hard as I was able. Roy’s lips were firmly zipped when I was handed the ballot and we retreated to a balcony.


In those days, we marked preferences by pencils. To protect voters’ privacy, there was a fence around the library’s voting table; there may have been a curtain, memory doesn’t say. As my minor child, Roy was permitted to come into the booth with me. Directly after I marked beside Lyndon Johnson’s name I felt a child’s open palm patting my back.


Among other matters that my 10-year-old feared was Barry Goldwater’s promise to use America’s nuclear option, if the Vietnam War effort should crash. Advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach created a campaign TV commercial that was played a single time, during an NBC movie. It didn’t air again; it wasn’t necessary.


You might have seen the film: a pretty blonde girl picking flowers in a green meadow, and calling out their sequential numbers, more or less. Then a doomful male voice supplants the child’s. He started what everybody recognized as a countdown; when he finished an Hiroshima mushroom cloud filled the screen. Lyndon Johnson was tagged by an aseptic announcer; they both threaten nuclear holocaust, if viewers vote for the Republican challenger.


Today’s GOP has no mesmerizing candidate, in these mid-term elections, to match Mr. Goldwater; when I did an interview for television in his inner Senate office, a year later, I discovered the Arizona gentleman was warm, thoughtful and generous, and kind. Nothing at all like the image that came across in his public campaign utterances. Extremist advisors replaced his honest image with theirs.


Thirty years later New Gingrich’s Contract with America occasioned a new breed of extremism, only to be detoured by the Speaker’s avarice, for both fame and money. In any event, Representative Gingrich’s target, Bill Clinton, was re-elected two years later.


Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin proved right and wrong Tuesday and the other primaries; there’s no such thing as a sure-shot in politics. The majority of Americans couldn’t care less. Having invested all their future and their hopes two years ago, they expected Barack Obama to walk on water; when his feet became wet many bolted. Some of his former supporters actually describe the president as an anti-Christ. American politics has come to that.


Some close friends identify themselves as members of the TEA Party, and that’s all it takes to belong. It’s by no means exclusive: Democrats, Republicans and particularly those who never found a peg to hang their political hats on. If you’re mad enough, you fit right in.


Where do the TEA Partiers belong?


We might never know. They have such particular and individual angers. Their points intertwine with other TEA Party member’s points. They agree and disagree with each other. They are united in their opposition to the status quo and a sincere hope that Barack Obama disappears. But to where? Their members called “birthers” frequently pick their noses at other partiers who insist Mr. Obama “must” be a Muslim. And so it goes.


Oh, for the good old days, when Roy accompanied his father into the voting booth and the political life was not far beyond a 10-year-old’s foggy comprehension and he could make clear decisions with no pre-conditions and qualifiers.


But this election season Roy Neal Meachum III is 46 years older and he’s read and seen enough, too much. His father and he seldom speak of the current elections. The Washington Redskins’ season has begun, and my son’s got better, much better, things to occupy his hours than dreary and dreadful politics.


Evidently most other Americans feel the same. Despite rationalizations and justifications for their absence, a very large majority in these United States didn’t bother to vote.


And that’s really extreme.


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