I've heard other parents say that talking to their kids about procreation is the hardest conversation they have. That conversation was a breeze. Tonight, I had the most serious conversation I've yet had with my 7 year old son.
More serious than the conversation about why his dad and I divorced (mostly because that happened when he was 4). More serious than the conversation about not talking to strangers (mostly because that happened when he was 3). More serious than the conversation about how important it is to tell the truth so that people are inclined to believe you rather than doubt you.
He asked me why George Bush was president, and he is too smart to take "because more people voted for him," for an answer. His immediate follow-up question was, "Why did so many people vote for him when he's such a bad president?"
My son was less than a year old on September 11, 2001.
I will never in my life forget his father waking me with the words, "A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center." We didn't know yet what had happened; it was a tragedy of epic proportions, but not yet one with a motive.
I recently took a trip down memory lane -- not something that I do willingly, because I am not much given to dwelling on the past except as a way to guide myself through the present and toward the future -- by going to archive.org and reading some of the CNN.com archives from that day, and the days following.
Then I went back and read the headlines from late October and early November of 2004.
So when my son asked me, "Why did so many people vote for him when he's such a bad president?" that question, and its answer, were fresh in my mind.
When people are afraid, they fear change
I began by describing to him, for the first time, what happened on September 11, 2001. He stared at me while I described airplanes full of fuel flying straight into the World Trade Center. He didn't really have a sense of what nearly 3,000 dead meant, so we started looking around on google images for crowds of that size. He went completely silent when we found a good representative photograph.
I explained that a group of people -- not representatives of a country, but representatives of an ideology -- attacked the United States by crashing the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I told him about how we didn't know why it had happened at first, and about how President George W. Bush had made swift decisions regarding how he intended to deal with the threat. I explained that what George W. Bush did wasn't exactly related to what had happened, but people saw him taking action and they were united, because they were afraid, and they wanted to hit back. I described how Saddam Hussein was an easy target, because he had risen to power again after being rebuked in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.
After taking this all in, my son asked me why al Qaeda had not simply gone straight to the source and attacked George W. Bush. And so I had to explain to him the concept of terrorism: the idea that if you make millions of people afraid for their own lives, you have more power than if you simply take the life of one person, no matter how important he may be.
And I took the narrative up through 2004, when George W. Bush ran against John Kerry, and I told my son about how just before the elections the terror "threat level" was increased, making people afraid again, and they were afraid of change and many of them voted out of fear to keep the president who had gone swiftly after an enemy than for the person who had wanted to change the way we ran our own country. I explained also that people had been trying to paint John Kerry as less of an heroic soldier than he had been, and how that made people doubt Kerry's ability to manage the military, in spite of all of Bush's failings as Commander in Chief. We talked about what the saying "the devil you know" means.
Re-establishing old friendships
The discussion dovetailed; I explained that John McCain wanted to do many of the things George Bush had been doing, not just in terms of the economy (which my son understands more than any 7 year old should), but in terms of the war in Iraq.
I explained that in addition to all of the reasons that matter to my son (not having to take standardized tests twice a year and spend the rest of the year preparing for them, knowing that he would be able to go to college, being guaranteed the right to go see a doctor if he got sick no matter whether I kept my job and my health insurance or not), I was working so hard for Barack Obama and taking him along with me when I volunteered because we really needed to change the country's direction.
He asked me, "If Barack Obama is president, will al Qaeda not hate the United States anymore?"
And oh, here's the sticking point. We really know the answer to that question, don't we? If we're honest about extremist ideology, the answer is "no."
But right now, we are a nation divided from our allies over weighty issues. We, through the leadership of George W. Bush, continue our efforts in a war on "terrorism" which generates only ill will, we ignore those who should be our allies in Latin America in a policy that allows anti-American sentiment and leaders to gain greater credibility, and we ignore the plight of our own citizens on our own soil. We are, thanks to the leadership of George W. Bush, a terrible example. Worse, we are a terrible friend.
Finally we were in territory that I could explain using analogies. If you're getting picked on at school, I asked my son, what helps more -- sticking with your friends, or lashing out at everybody? He's learned this lesson himself, so he finished my thought regarding how important good friends are when some people try to give you a hard time. And having gone through a phase of lashing out at everybody, he also understood without prompting that in order to keep a circle of protection against bullies, you have to be a good friend to the people who will protect you.
"So," he said, chewing on a fingernail and watching the cat watch the squirrels outside, "If Barack Obama is president, he'll be a better friend and so his friends will stick up for him against al Qaeda?"
That's the hope, isn't it?
Fighting the right battles
Still, he wasn't satisfied with how the Iraq war played into the Bush re-election situation. He wanted to know why we had soldiers fighting there. We talked about how Bush thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons that could kill thousands more people, and so he went into Iraq believing he could head off another such attack, but al Qaeda had moved into Iraq from Afghanistan (where we also had soldiers, along with a multinational coalition). That was when he asked me how many soldiers were in Iraq, and we mashed together the crowd shot from Portland for perspective. We were in that crowd. He fell silent.
"Twice as many people as were at the park?" he finally asked, in a small voice.
My son has second cousins who are permanently disabled after serving in Iraq. He has a great-uncle who served three tours in Vietnam and is still in close contact with active servicemembers who serve in Afghanistan. He's heard the family talk before about the difference between what's reported on the news and what's really going on, and about how much harder it is for soldiers in Afghanistan. But the pieces finally fell together for him, from the stuff he'd heard me talk about while canvassing and volunteering, from the news broadcasts, from the bits of stump speeches he's watched with me. "We're not fighting with the right people at all, are we?" he mused.
It all seemed so simple to me
I wrote this diary in part because I wanted to go back through the process of explaining this year's election and the last two elections to someone my son's age. It seemed really simple to me: what choice was the right one, why hope is a more important motivator than fear, how critical it is that we not repeat or compound our mistakes in foreign policy and diplomacy. I'm no expert, but still I'm the antithesis of a low-information voter.
And yet these are the conversations we're going to be having between now and November. Not conversations amongst ourselves about who's a more worthy standard-bearer for our party. It goes back to what Fineman said on his book tour last month: we have to re-argue the first principles that make us who we are. We have to make people understand, even if it takes language simple enough for a child, what motivates their decisions when they vote. That's something that a Democratic candidate can set the stage for in a stump speech or a debate or an interview on television, but the real work is left to us in our family rooms and barbershops and coffehouses and at the water cooler.
It's worse to be misled than to be wrong
Many of us, myself included, live in a kind of progressive-politics bubble where we can convey a great deal of nuance and information through a few well-chosen references. That doesn't work outside the bubble.
We can't speak in code. We can't just say "Swift Boat" and expect everyone we meet to understand what it means. We can't rely solely on a coalition of new voters to deliver the electoral votes in November. And we can't simply tell people it'll be better if they vote Democrat and that's the end of their obligation, because we here in the bubble know it takes more than filling out the ballot.
I've had the wrong approach for too long. Here in the bubble, I'm haughty when anyone suggests they'll vote for McCain. I can spit out a litany of code words designed to make any true progressive twitch: Roe v. Wade, equal pay, G.I. Bill, Mission Accomplished, Sunni or Shiite?, the real leader of Iran, trollop, waterboarding. But even moderate-information voters won't get all of those references, and moreover, they aren't immediately inclined to recoil at all of them.
We can't approach this election from the point of view that people who voted for Bush were wrong. That's a guaranteed way to get them to stop listening. But we can approach it from the point of view that people who voted for Bush were misled. I truly believe we all were -- even my military family agree that the military and the American public were misled in the rationale for the war in Iraq, and that we continue to be misled on a daily basis about what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If I can convince my seven year old that Bush is a bad president, but the people who elected him aren't bad people, maybe I can convince a few of those voters, too.