Southern political girl.
Like most native Arkansans, I watched yesterday's inauguration of George W. Bush with a mix of relief and sorrow. For at last, it is over!—and sadly, yes, it is over, and we will probably never see the likes of such attention again. That quiet, rural state has been in the limelight for the past eight years, and what an incredible time it was to be living there when Clinton was first elected.
The closing of this man's presidency closes an eventful chapter in my life, as well.
I was a teenager, still in high school and fascinated by politics, when Clinton began his improbable run for the presidency. The kind of Southern closed-door, good-ol'-boy politics that we had always taken for granted was suddenly shown to the press (and through them, the world). They came, with their insulting questions and stifled laughter at our mannerisms and speech patterns. ("Now, tell us please, is it y'all or ya'll that your kind use down here instead of proper English?")
Were we ignorant? Probably.
Were we made laughingstocks? Yes.
But as the months wore on the and the campaigns got dirtier, something improbable, even to us, was growing: Bill Clinton's lead.
It culminated on a school night, a Tuesday night of course. We didn't talk about it in class, but my father and I certainly talked about it at home.
My childhood home was a politically schizoid one. My twin love and distaste of politics comes from my family; my grandfather served as mayor for our small town for many years. My mother, as his oldest child, bore the brunt of much of the small-town Southern politicking that resulted—people commented on even the littlest things, like why she attended the tiny Methodist church, but allowed her oldest daughter to attend the Vacation Bible School at the Baptist church in summers.
(Answer: because my sister wanted to attend VBS with her friends. But not that the reason was anyone's business.)
It should come as no surprise that my mother, as far as I can tell, hates politics of any kind, shape, or form. I say "as far as I can tell," because she will not discuss it, ever. If asked her opinion or how she voted, she will answer simply, haughtily, "My vote is private"—with the over-the-glasses schoolteacher look she's had years to perfect that says, "and that's all you're going to find out, too."
But I am my father's child, and in some ways, my grandfather's.
My grandfather understood the way of small-town politicking; my father loved politics for the process and the argument. My grandfather understood that winning votes and long-time arguments sometimes meant you had to do a favor for someone else to earn gratitude, respect, and a payback. Sometimes a loaned part for a stalling tractor, or an extra pair of hands on a house repair (or hay-baling) worked just as well. It wasn't to curry favor. It was simply what you did, and people would repay you in kind.
My father, on the other hand, loved to argue about strategies and campaign themes and the minutiae of local and national election procedures. I cannot be sure, but I must think it was he who answered my first questions about national elections and sparked my interest in them. For every election, there was always at least one spirited discussion between the two of us.
My memories of the 1992 election are, strangely, flatter and less vivid than they should be. I remember no comments from my grandfather, and little but amazement from my father that our loony governor would be so, well, loony as to attempt to win the presidency.
But oh, then there was Election Day. When I came home from school, I left my books in my bedroom and pasted my eyes to the television. (Unusual for me, as I rarely watch much television and did not watch much as a teenager.) What we saw was incredible. Mind-boggling.
Clinton was winning.
He was us. Not 'one of us.' That implied a separation, and a symbolism. As the campaign had worn on, and the half-spoken, half-insinuated comments about Arkansas had mounted in the press, Clinton was no longer just a man from our state, our flawed but charismatic governor (love him or hate him), running for president…he was us. He was our way of thumbing our noses at a nation that thought they were too good to acknowledge a state full of barefoot uneducated rednecks—and making them vote for us because what we offered was better than anything they could offer.
Around five p.m., my father turned to my mother and said, "I want to take Amy to Little Rock."
This made her angry. "She has school tomorrow, and every drunken idiot within five hundred miles is going to converge on downtown Little Rock. I do not want her there."
For once, my father was unruffled—and determined.
"I don't care. You and I never got the chance to see anything like this when we were growing up. What are the chances that this will happen again? She can sleep on the way home, but she should not miss this."
I wasn't stupid. While I thought it would be interesting to go, I knew that, truth be told, my father was trying to take me to Little Rock so that he could go. It had not occurred to me to ask to go to Little Rock to see the spontaneous party that was orchestrating itself in the downtown area, but once presented with the opportunity, I did not want to give it up.
I waited. My mother did not relent.
We went anyway—my father, myself, and two family friends—over my mother's sternest objections.
Little Rock was full to the rafters. We found a parking lot close to where shuttle buses were circling to take curious onlookers to downtown (to help prevent a massive traffic crunch later). We watched in amazement with thousands of other people as Clinton was first predicted, and then declared, the winner of the election. We watched him stand on a platform in front of the Old State House—a place we had all been many times—and do the improbable—give a celebratory speech. We went home late—tired, celebratory, with a sense of history, shocked…triumphant.
They had laughed at us, but we had won anyway.
Years passed. My grandfather died as the campaign to the 1996 election geared up. That year, as a college student, I said words not unlike my father's, to my friends—"If you don't go, you'll never get the chance to see anything like this again."
We drove my car to Little Rock, and parked in the same area, except this time we walked, instead of taking shuttle buses. The tone for this party was different; angrier, more sullen. There were metal detectors and pat-down searches this time. As we stood in line to get through the metal detectors, we saw the networks declare Clinton the winner of the election.
The people doing the pat-down searches neither smiled nor stopped to celebrate. This time, it was business. The crowd was larger, pushier; many of them were drunk. We saw Clinton's speech; during it, one of my friends finally remembered to tell us she was claustrophobic—right before she had a panic attack.
We got her out of the crowds and into the car. We drove back to the dorms, marveling at what we'd seen. They were all amazed that my parents had seen fit to take a teenager to such an event four years ago.
Four years ago, I explained, it had been different. More innocence, more celebration. Less resentment of the national spotlight on us. Four years of press, questions, and metal detectors had changed it from the first celebration of a surprise victory to something harder-edged, defensive, and less … celebratory.
This past election night, I sat with my husband and some friends in my living room. I cooked dinner for them. It was Kat's 21st birthday, so we had drinks for her. I felt so strange, being away from Arkansas, not in Little Rock. Being indoors, not braving the cold to stand outside the Old State House with thousands of people who talked like me.
It somehow felt less momentous, less immediate, less real. Here, again, were puppets on a national stage that had little to do with Arkansas and with the people I had grown up amongst. In the eight years that had passed, we had grown accustomed to the harsh light of the national press; its criticism, its well-bred condescension.
Its absence was welcome, but a little saddening. Those with that particular southern/midwestern accent blend of Arkansas were getting ready to go on with life—a little wiser, a little sick of getting asked, "Do you know him?"—with the unspoken shared knowledge of who "him" was.
But my father was right—we will never see anything like that again. I've occasionally even gotten the hint that my mother regretted not going with us back in 1992. She dimly understands what many of us now know so well—it's not the same when you watch it from a television screen.