The Once and Future President by Regan Burke

FeaturedThe Once and Future President by Regan Burke

Barreling out of Washington National airport on Friday afternoon, October 5, 2018, my cousin, his wife and I headed south for a family reunion in Charlottesville, Virginia. Leslie, in the back seat kept a close watch on her iPhone messages for news of the controversial vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh who had been accused of sexual molestation as a teenager. I sat in the passenger seat next to my cousin, Bill, making sure my iPhone didn’t jiggle out of the USB charging port in the console. I’d arrived from Chicago where the verdict of Jason Van Dyke’s murder trial was about to be announced. Van Dyke shot 19-year old Laquan McDonald sixteen times on a southside street in full view of a dashcam. When I left home at 7:00 in the morning police were already positioned on every corner of the Loop anticipating riots in the streets if the jury acquitted Van Dyke.

Messages started lighting up the car halfway down Route 66. All the Senators we thought might vote against Kavanaugh caved. 

Leslie reported from the back seat.

“Collins is a yes.” 

“Flake’s voting for him now.” 

“Manchin is a yes.”

It was like the reading of the dead at a war memorial. Our once hoped-for heroes were dead to us now. Through my gadget came news that the jury came in with a 2nd-degree murder conviction for Jason Van Dyke. Justice prevailed somewhere out there in the middle distance but I was geographically removed from quick-fix relief and drawn into the pall in the car on the Virginia highway. I anticipated a gloomy night in the larger group of our politically-charged and mostly-Democratic relatives. 

In the dusk of warm Virginia horse country two hundred of us gathered on the lawn of th-1our kind and generous relative, Ann—sisters and brothers, cousins, 2nd cousins,1st cousins once removed, spouses, partners and all their small children. Our casual salutations were loving and genuine but often cut short.

“Did you hear Manchin voted yes?”

“I just saw Kavanaugh’s getting sworn in tomorrow.”

During afternoon free time the next day, some of us wound our way up a forested valley road to Monticello, the mountaintop plantation of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. Up until the 1950s, this father figure came to us a hero, our 3rd President, author of the Declaration of Independence, purchaser of the Louisiana Territory and the guy who sent Lewis and Clark to Oregon by canoe. We began to hear about his slave ownership in 1960s periodicals. All accounts were accompanied by declarations that Jefferson hated slavery and tried to abolish it. So we still had our hero.

Sometime in the 1990s historians uncovered research documenting that even though Virginia had a strong free-slave movement in the early 1800s, Jefferson was not a part of it. He even built a new road to Monticello to hide his slave quarters from visiting abolitionists. We started to doubt our hero-father. 

Then came Sally Hemmings.

In 1998 DNA testing showed Thomas Jefferson fathered his slave’s six children. The Sally Hemmings exhibit at Monticello tells us the relationship started when fourteen-year-old Sally lived in Paris with Jefferson and his daughter. The exhibit rightly asks the question, “Was it rape?” 

Indeed it was. 

And what of our hero now?

 

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Monticello’s slave quarters

 

Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather

On a ridge near the Fox River John and I soft-footed along the sidewalk stopping here and there for Henry, my terrier, to sniff unfamiliar markers deposited at the base of old-growth trees by squirrels, chipmunks, and, of course, dogs. I asked John the usual grandmotherly questions about school, his grades, homework. Science is his favorite subject and he likes moving from class to class now that he’s in Middle School. He pointed out homes of his school ’s vice-principal, classmates, older kids he knew. He said there are often turkey vultures shuffling around this lawn or that, looking for dead worms and garter snakes. 

“Did you know vultures ride the thermals?” He asked. And I knew what he was thinking—he wishes he could spread his arms like wings and let the thermals airlift him into the sky. I do too. We probably have the same dream.

Further along we saw a robin jumping across the grass.

“I never see robins in the city except in the park,” I said, “do you think that’s the robin singing?” 

“No, that’s a cardinal. In the trees. A robin goes yeep.yeep.yeep. A cardinal goes schwee-eet. schwee-eet,” he said.

When we returned to his house, we headed for the deck off the kitchen. He asked if Henry and I wanted a drink, then disappeared inside for a few minutes. He came back through the door caressing a lizard that stretched from his neck to his waist. 

Catching me staring at the hummingbird feeder dangling from the railing, he said, “We haven’t seen a hummingbird since we put up the feeder. But there are lots of yellow finches flying in and out of the lilac tree.”

I have no clue what 12-year old boys are supposed to know. There was a time when he carried a pocket computer around with him so he could play Mario at every possible moment. After a few years, Mario took a backseat to Minecraft and I thought cyber games would possess him for the rest of his life. So I was thrilled to hear these lessons in bird behavior so confidently plucked from deep within his genetic code.  

I shouldn’t be surprised. As a fledgling, before he could talk but after he’d learned to walk, his mother and I took him to Target. While we loaded bags in the car, John sat 1motionless in the shopping cart transfixed by a seagull preening in the sun at the top of a lamppost. A few years later, John and I were sitting on the sunny side of Navy Pier, taking a lunch break after whiffling around first-grader attractions in the Children’s Museum. Sparrows started hopping around our table and John surrendered his bagful of beloved McDonald’s fries to the birds. Crouching down on the pavement stretching his arm as far as it would go with a soggy cold fry dangling between his thumb and finger he tried to get the birds to eat from his hand. The outstretched arm tired and weakened so he propped it up with his other arm and went for at least a half hour. 

I rue that I see him so infrequently. But I’m comforted by my brood of friends with the same grandmother’s lamentation. Like birds on a wire we gather and chirp about our grandchildren, clucking out their accomplishments, funny remarks and milestones, ending with a feathered sigh.

The Hair Revenant

Such a big deal. The hair.  

“What’s wrong with your hair?” my mother asked every time I saw her until her death when I was forty years old. “Get your hair out of your eyes,” and “Go brush your hair,” were common salutations when I was a child. My hair looked like her hair when she was a child, cut straight and short. Hers was blonde, mine brunette. We had moderately thick hair, not wispy or curly. Hairdressers cooed how they loved cutting my hair because it’s so healthy.

My mother disdained long hair as unfashionable, her tip-off to an inferior human being. She let me cover my short hair in bandanna-type scarves tied at the back of the neck like the picture on the Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. I loved that picture. Aunt Jemima symbolized what I wanted my mother to be. Happy, warm and always flipping pancakes for breakfast.

Our household of five females acquired a portable hairdryer just in time for me to revamp my hair for high school. The tabletop boxy machine had a four-foot flexible tube that connected to a soft plastic bonnet with holes on the inside. I’d curl chunks of short wet hair around plastic tubes, called rollers, and secure them to my scalp with long metal bobby pins. Then I’d cover my caterpillar-like head with the bonnet, switch on the heat, light up a Marlboro and sit on my bed reading Time Magazine while hot air transformed my pubescent healthy hair. Too loud for listening to the radio, the cranked up hairdryer sounded like I’d plugged into the exhaust end of the vacuum cleaner. The result, supposedly a Jackie Kennedy style bouffant, gave my dehydrated hair the look of a puffy rippled helmet.

I rebelled against the home hairdresser and the bouffant during a beatnik phase when I grew long hair, straight-parted in the middle. I wrote poems, learned folk songs, read Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Albert Camus. I armed myself with facts from Village Voice articles to counterpunch a friend’s parboiled views bubbled up from his father’s membership in the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. We debated in the local sweet shop after school before bicycling to the town cemetery to skateboard.

For my senior yearbook my mother persuaded me I would look sophisticated with a pixie haircut. I wanted to be sophisticated, to go to college and write for the New Yorker. But I became a stoned out alcoholic hippie instead, and let my hair grow long again. 

Coming to my senses, I’ve conceded to medium length hair, give or take, for more than half my life. Once in a while around three o’clock in the morning I wake up in front of the bathroom mirror holding scissors and looking down into a sink rimmed with leavings of healthy grey and white hair.

My Bohemian hairdresser tells me it’s uncommon but not unusual.

“A revenant wants you to cut your hair and has visited you in your sleep.”

Writing the Body with Beth Finke

Last Friday night author Beth Finke and I participated in an event called “Body Language—Reading and Discussions about Writing the Body.”The event was held at Access Living, a non-profit advocacy organization in Chicago that delivers programs and services to people with disabilities.

As a writer in one of Beth’s memoir-writing classes, I’m included in her latest book, Writing Out Loud. The book tells Beth’s story about teaching memoir to older adults, and I gladly accepted the invitation to get on stage with Beth and interview her about her writing and teaching. After introductions, I asked some of the obvious questions most people want to know:

  • What was it like to get fired from your job when you lost your sight?
  • How did you get started leading memoir-writing classes?

The shocker came when I asked, “What other jobs have you had since going blind?” Beth answered by “reading” a passage from her book about auditioning to pose in the nude for an art class. She pulled out a phone-size gadget with her passage teed up, put in earplugs and flipped the switch that talked the words in her ear as she perfectly mouthed these words out loud to the audience:

My robe was still on when I backed up to the table and hitched myself up. Crouching down, I felt the tabletop’s edges to be sure I wouldn’t fall off, then stood up and unbuttoned my robe.

I’d been told to strike six poses, eventually ending up in a reclining position. Had I been able to see that first model do her audition, I might have had a better idea of what was expected. I was suddenly so concerned with coming up with six different poses that I forgot I was naked.

I posed.

The department must have been pretty desperate for models, especially ones middle-aged or older and willing to work mornings. Most models are students who liked sleeping in.

I passed the audition.

Access Living is a leading force in the national disability advocacy community. The audience included people from their extensive list of volunteers, clients, personal assistants, board members and friends. Executive Vice President Jim Charlton even brought students from his classes at the University of Illinois Institute on Disability and Human Development.

Next up after Beth’s interview was a reading from artist Riva Lehrer’s upcoming memoir, Golem Girl. Riva read a riveting account from her magnificently written manuscript about growing up at the Condon School for Crippled Children in Cincinnati. A slide show moved from photo to photo behind her as she read. It showed lovely old black and white yearbook pictures of the school, the students and the teachers.

Riva works at Access Living, is an adjunct professor in Medical Humanities at Northwestern University, and was born with spina bifida. Her paintings focus on physical and cultural representations of hers and others disabilities. Golem Girl will be published by Penguin/Random House next year.

The most startling part of the evening came as questions from the audience started flying. An audience member said she’d read Beth’s book Writing Out Loud and asked if she was writing another. Jessica said she writes, too and asked if Beth ever would start a class for younger people near where she lives, in Skokie. Then, Kapow! Someone asked Riva how she was able to accomplish so much after being ridiculed relentlessly as a child because of her disability.

“I’ve been called crip, gimp, freak, retard, midget, you-name-it,” she acknowledged. “In the Condon school, because we all had something, I felt safe, not so different. Outside of school I was always scared.”

She said that when she first started working alongside so many other people with disabilities at Access Living, she felt safe at work like she always had at school. “I was afraid to go out the door at the end of the workday.” She credited Susan Nussbaum, her friend and colleague at Access Living, for helping her navigate the outside world. “You just have to rely on others.”

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Jessica, Beth Finke and Whitney

Afterwards I walked around the room to chit-chat. When I returned to Beth she was leaning into Jessica showing her how to work the reading gadget so Jessica, who uses a wheelchair and has limited sight, could read her own stories out loud to her own audience.

Just before we left, Beth’s guide dog, Whitney, uncharacteristically stood up and lifted her head high enough for Jessica to pet her.

 

1968 Democratic Convention, or How I Became an Alcoholic

1968 Democratic Convention, or How I Became an Alcoholic

 

When my first husband, labeled Madman Kelly by his Princeton colleagues, came to the end of his Sociology degree in 1968, the campus uncharacteristically fire-cracked with small anti-war rallies, civil rights demonstrations and teach-ins on avoiding the draft. Memorial services for Martin Luther King, Jr. ignited embers in the Ivy League gentleman conscience. Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train passed by Princeton Junction as I watched with our toddler son Joe hanging in an Army surplus knapsack. I campaigned for the poet-senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy in nearby Trenton with Joe on my back.

Madman Kelly graduated and we partied through the summer at the Jersey Shore. Kelly lifeguarded, Baby Joe and I frolicked on the beach, and we delighted being together in the light of day.

At night Kelly and I took turns going to bars with our friends, and I started smoking pot and getting in arguments over the Viet Nam war. Jersey Shore barflies had nothing on me—I’d been schooled by Princeton peace activists and Ramparts Magazine.

President Lyndon Johnson did not seek reelection. That left Eugene McCarthy, the intellectual standard-bearer of peace and justice, to shepherd the world toward a frenzied utopia in his campaign for President.

After Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in June, I started tutoring a young cousin for cash to buy stationery and postage stamps and took to writing letters to Kennedy delegates asking them to vote for McCarthy at the Democratic Convention in August. I’d pontificate daily to friends and strangers on the beach and in the bars to test out new reasons to support McCarthy over the late-arriving establishment candidate Senator Hubert Humphrey. I fully expected my work to pay off at the Convention in Chicago and longed to be at the youth festival planned in my hometown during the Convention to celebrate my candidates’s victory.

By the time I joined friends at a neighborhood saloon to watch the Convention on TV, news accounts of the protests and riots were interrupting coverage of the political speeches inside the Convention Hall. But that didn’t matter to me. Soon all would be well. McCarthy would clinch the nomination and beat Richard Nixon in November. No doubt about it.

The unthinkable startled me out of innocent political bliss. The TV flashed back and forth between white men bullying peace delegates inside and police beating peace activists outside. Mayor Daley ordered the police to shoot to kill. People who looked like me were dripping in blood.th-6

What was happening? Eighty percent of primary voters were anti-war. We won the battle and I was sure we’d beaten back the war machine. The delegates rejected McCarthy and his peace plank, nominated Hubert Humphrey and iced out Democratic activists. 

And me? I added martinis, LSD, mescaline, speed, librium and cocaine to my diet. I could see no future. By the time the next presidential election rolled around in 1972, AA meetings monopolized my time and I did nothing but slap a George McGovern bumper sticker on my VW.

Is Donald Rumsfeld Sorry?

Is Donald Rumsfeld Sorry?

Throughout 2002-2003 I had been raging against the Iraq war, often rallying under the fire-red Calder sculpture at Federal Plaza hanging hope on words—sometimes from Reverend Jesse Jackson, sometimes from local organizers and sometimes from State Senator Barack Obama who told us, “I’m not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.”

In March 2003, after the US bombed Baghdad, I scrummaged up North Lake Shore Drive with 10,000 irate activists steeling ourselves against the Lake Michigan hoarfrost. Mayor Daley wanted no disruptions to the shoppers on the Magnificent Mile, so when we turned west toward non-permitted Michigan Avenue, the police herded us into a group near Walgreen’s. Troublemakers were handcuffed and hustled out of the crowd into police buses. My grey hair and down coat disguised the incendiary in me so I was not singled out. I crossed Michigan Avenue and watched from the sidelines before walking home to ice my smoldering knees.chi-protest09custody20120209100507

The Invasion of Iraq was a response to the terrorist group al-Qaeda’s attack on September 11, 2001. Heavily influenced by Neoconservatives, Bush Administration officials Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld announced Iraq not only possessed weapons of mass destruction but also colluded with the terrorists. Experts unleashed from the very recent Clinton Administration disclosed no evidence of either. After the invasion, they were proven correct but the Bush Administration kept fanning the flames of war.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who Richard Nixon once called, “a ruthless little bastard” was accused by his generals and officers in the field of having “abysmal military planning and lack of strategic competence.” Insufficient high-level support as well as the highly publicized exposure of Rumsfeld’s policy to detain enemy combatants and use enhanced interrogation techniques to torture them led to his ouster by the end of 2006.

And then one Sunday I found Rumsfeld sitting alone in the pew in front of me under the pulpit at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Chicago is his hometown. I had never seen him at Fourth Pres before but knew he was a member of the church. Church members had wanted him thrown off the rolls, banned, shunned. Pastor John Buchanan, a true statesman who had denounced the Iraq war in every sermon, once had to announce to the congregation, “Donald Rumsfeld is a member of this church and that’s all I’m going to say about it.”

All through the service that Sunday I fumed, formulating what I would say to Rumsfeld after the closing benediction. Perhaps I’d ask him if he regretted what he did, or perhaps I’d ask how many civilian deaths he’s responsible for. I settled for one word which I intended to deliver with samurai precision, swift and deadly.

Buchanan stepped down from the pulpit just before the service ended. He didn’t stand at the center to recite his usual benediction. He came over to Rumsfeld instead, greeting him with a handshake while escorting him out the side exit. I half rose from my seat and could see myself chasing after him with a clenched fist sputtering “Murderer!”. Thank God the pastor saved me from that embarrassment. I missed my chance but I trust Buchanan delivered a more dignified but just as pointed message. And who knows? Maybe Rumsfeld confessed culpability for the deaths (at that point) of 12,000 soldiers, 25,000 Iraqi civilians and the countless maimed and injured of his phony war.

Crossing Paths with Putin

As part of the White House advance team, I traveled to Birmingham, England in April,1998 to help with President Bill Clinton’s schedule during the G-8 Summit, a meeting of the world’s leading economies. At Clinton’s behest Russia became a member of the G-8 the previous year (Russia was removed in 2016 because of their annexation of Crimea). Assigned to make arrangements for Clinton’s one-on-one bilateral meetings with G-8 world leaders, I learned Clinton’s meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin was my most important duty. It had to be discreet, secure and comfortable.

For ten consecutive days before the summit began, I tried to meet with my Russian counterpart at the Russian headquarters hotel. The Russians use KGB officers rather than civilians for their advance teams. Our US Secret Service generally didn’t commit resources until these tentatively scheduled meetings were established by the White House advance person. Even though the press speculated Boris Yeltsin was too ill to attend the G-8, the US pressed the Russians hard to accomplish the bilateral meeting as a show of Russia’s support for the latest nuclear non-proliferation agreement.

We got word at the last minute that President Yeltsin would meet President Clinton upon Yeltsin’s arrival at the Russian headquarters hotel, 24 hours after the start of the G-8 summit. That signaled the KGB to admit me to the secure floor of Russian Command. As I exited the elevator and entered an open door at the end of a typical hotel hallway, I faced men and women sitting at long tables stretched the entire length of the hotel. The hotel rooms’ walls had been removed, and tangles of wires dropped from the exposed ceilings to telephones, fax machines, computers, cameras and ominous electronic components. I announced my name and asked for my contact.

The nearest of the twenty-five or more Russians laughed out loud. “We know who you are,” one said.  

You do?

Wide-eyed at the cornucopia of visual information, I gawked at the long stretch of KGB agents wearing headsets and staring at video screens. One ferret-looking guy strutted around glancing over the others’ shoulders. My Russian contact approached, and we proceeded to a room on the hotel mezzanine reserved for the off-the-record meeting between the two heads of state. I called my Secret Service counterpart and the three of us performed our obligatory walk-through, agreeing to the safest route for both presidents through the hotel, with enough exposure for the media to observe the two men strolling casually together.

The day Boris Yeltsin arrived in Birmingham, he fell down the stairs getting off the plane and was carried to his car. His KGB detail helped him into the hotel elevator but he lumbered on his own down the exposed hallway to greet Clinton. My job completed, I left for the staff room in the US headquarters hotel where I saw a televised report saying Yeltsin appeared inebriated and the two presidents may have had a less than fruitful conversation.

I met the Russian team once more, a year later in Auckland, New Zealand during the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Though Russia is not a part of APEC, Vladimir Putin flew to Auckland to secretly meet Bill Clinton. I secured a space and told the Russian team when and where to bring Putin. When I briefed President Clinton on the logistics of the clandestine meeting, he told me Putin was a real bad guy. I asked why he was meeting him. Clinton said he was going to be the next President of Russia.

I led Clinton to the undisclosed site and saw Putin for what I thought was the first time. Later, in the staff room, it struck me that Putin had been the KGB puppet master in that room in Birmingham the year before.

Boris Yeltsin had a reputation for public drunkenness and erratic behavior. Foreign service officers gossiped that KGB chief Putin secretly kept Yeltsin plied with vodka and drugs to render him ineffective so Yeltsin would either be forced to resign or drop dead. In August 1999 Yeltsin appointed the little-known KGB chief Putin as Prime Minister. Yeltsin retreated to the presidential dacha outside Moscow to recover from various illnesses and abruptly resigned five months later. He appointed Vladimir Putin as acting president.