Happy New Year, just like the Old Years

Becky O'Malley
Monday January 01, 2018 - 01:47:00 PM

Looking through a box of old sewing patterns inherited from her grandmother, my daughter found a clipping of a column written by satirical columnist Art Buchwald, probably in early 1974. It’s a parody, a purported message from Richard Nixon’s winter White House in, yes, Florida.

Here’s Buchwald's introduction: “It is wrong to think that President Nixon’s political future rests on what evidence is produced by the Watergate hearings or whether the Supreme Court decides he has to give up the White House tapes.” Sound familiar?

Art’s gimmick was that it was a very cold winter, and Nixon was blaming the problem on Congress. His parody depicts the president claiming the usual bugaboos beloved of traditional Republicans: taxes (“I still believe a vast majority of Americans feel as I do, that it’s better to shiver than pay higher taxes’), the media (“The responsibility lies not only with Congress but with a press and TV media that for the past four months has been devoting endless space and time to weather reports that show the United States is a cold nation. … there are great parts of the United States that aren’t cold. Florida isn’t cold. Texas isn’t cold…All we ever see or read about is New England and Minnesota…), big government encouraging the lazy poor (“we’re not going to give a blank check to those able-bodied people who are capable of finding ways of keeping warm without government assistance…).

My daughter was amazed when she read it. The column was written at least 45 years ago, and yet today’s Republicans are still singing the same stale old tunes, except that now what was parody is presented with a straight face by the current president.

As we say all too often: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Except that things aren’t the same thing anymore in this surreal age. Congress is now populated by fools who actually believe such foolish dogmas, aided and abetted by an executive branch that is both ignorant (in a way that Nixon never was) and corrupt (as he certainly was). 

Thinking about the age of Nixon on New Year’s Eve as I write this reminds me of what I think was my most optimistic New Year’s Eve, in 1968 as I looked forward to 1969. Why optimistic? Well, because nothing could be any worse than ’68. 

Just a few low points in a generally awful year: Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. The Democratic Convention blew up with many arrested. Richard Nixon was elected President. How could it get worse? 

Well, as we know, it did get worse, though eventually it got better. Nixon stopped the Vietnam War, eventually, after allowing many more unneeded deaths for political reasons. Then he was caught behaving badly and had to quit. Good. 

In between, some of us thought in 2000 that 2001 was going to be pretty shocking, believing as we did that G. W. Bush had stolen the election with the connivance of the Supremes, as he had. We went to DC (with the late beloved firebrand Patti Dacey) and demonstrated in awful sleet at the Court on Inauguration Day—which did approximately no good. We thought W was pretty bad, but it turned out presidents could be a lot worse. 

Which brings us to New Year 2017, a year in which things turned out to be just as bad as we expected and perhaps even worse. It’s sobering, to say the least, to discover that the 2016 election was certainly stolen, by the Russians in fact, and that the new administration is thoroughly staffed with scoundrels.  

The current situation makes Nixon, Bush I and Bush II all look like statesmen, which is ridiculous. (Although I can’t help finding it mordantly amusing…) 

Perhaps we can instead concentrate on local politics as a refreshing alternative. 

The latest crop of Berkeley councilmembers are eminently more plausible than their predecessors, though some are disappointingly cautious when more forceful action is needed. Mayor Arreguin does deserve praise for not panicking when the bullies came to town, avoiding bloodshed, though at a sobering financial cost. Councilmember Kate Harrison in particular has distinguished herself by her intelligent pursuit of important governance reforms—she’s serving out a short term now, but will need to be re-elected in November of this year. Other councilmembers, even holdovers from the previous administration, seem to be making a serious effort to respond to vox populi, though they don’t all hear the people saying quite the same thing. 

And, of course, there’s an election in the fall, isn’t there? If you’re looking for a productive way to spend your time, there’s nothing more important right now than working to take control of the House away from the lunatics formerly known as Republicans, with the additional goal in Berkeley of making sure that Kate Harrison is re-elected. Berkeley’s District 8 City Council seat can also be contested in November, and there’s an active search right now for a progressive challenger to the incumbent. 

I’ve learned the hard way that there’s not much point in over-anticipating—and dreading—what a new year might bring. It’s true that things could get worse, but they could also get better, and chances are the answer is not either/or but both/and. What seems to me to be most important right now is to keep our eyes on two of the biggest prizes: action both local and international to slow or halt climate change and protection of human rights at home and abroad.  

Those in power are likely to remain in power for another year, so it’s our job to continually press them to do the right thing in as many situations as possible. We have our work cut out for us, don’t we?