Humanity over politics

Even in difficult political times, we must remember that politicians are people first

Recently I was reading a review of Nicholson Baker’s new novel, Checkpoint, in which the central character is a politically enraged and mentally unhinged citizen who is seriously thinking about trying to assassinate President Bush. The novel is set in a hotel room, where the man’s friend is trying to talk him out of his plan. At one point, the would-be assassin challenges his friend to consider honestly how he’d feel if the president actually were killed. He asks, “Wouldn’t part of you think ‘He’s got it coming to him?’ Huh?”

When I read those words, I had a flashback to March 30, 1981, when I was a high school sophomore sitting in an afternoon music rehearsal. We were suddenly interrupted by a student who burst into the room with the news that President Reagan had just been shot—at which point the room erupted in cheers and applause.

I don’t remember everything about the one or two minutes of celebration that took place between that breathless announcement and our return to business, but I do remember a few things: First, the applause and cheering were spontaneous, and I think most of the class joined in. Second, when our teacher called us back to order he didn’t say much beyond “OK, OK, let’s get back to work.” Third, and worst of all, I’m pretty sure that I was one of the people cheering and applauding.

Why did I do that? Why did we do that? What was wrong with us? Bear in mind that, as far as my classmates and I knew when we started laughing and clapping, the president was dead. What we heard was that he had been shot, and we wouldn’t find out until later that he had survived the attack. In our minds, we weren’t applauding the fact that someone had assaulted him—we were applauding the fact that he had been murdered.

I’ve carried that memory around with me for 23 years now, never looking at it very closely because I’ve always been ashamed of the way I responded in that moment. I guess the response of the others in my class was shameful too, but I don’t have any particular insight into their psyches or souls and don’t feel like I can stand in judgment of what they did. I can judge my own behavior, though.

I’d like to be able to say I’m baffled by the cretinous way I responded to the news of the president’s shooting. It would be nice to say I honestly don’t know what came over me. It would also be tempting to blame my reaction on the coarsening of political culture that was already in evidence in the early 1980s, and on the cynicism that had arisen in the wake of Watergate. By the time I was halfway through high school, Americans no longer typically regarded their president as a heroic authority figure and symbol of American greatness, and they had come to expect little more of the president than cynical political expediency or even outright criminality.

But I think either of those explanations would be facile and self-serving. To blame my reaction on the dominant political mood of the moment would be to imply that I reacted the way any reasonable person would have done in that time and place. In fact, I think my response was brutal and inhuman, and my behavior was craven; if I hadn’t found myself in a cheering crowd, I think—or at least I’d like to think—that my independent response would have been a bit more generous or would at least have come closer to something like human decency.

I think the real explanation for my behavior is that I had allowed myself to give in to two particularly low human tendencies: first, the tendency to adopt thoughtlessly the prefabricated political attitudes of others ("I am a smart young person, and therefore, I despise Reagan” or “I am a good Christian patriot, and therefore, I despise Clinton"), and second, to allow distance and celebrity to rob someone of his personhood in my mind. Reagan wasn’t a real person to me but something more like a cardboard cutout. Hearing about his murder was more like hearing about the death of a marketing concept than of a human being. Presumably, if I had actually been there, and heard the bullets snap through the air and seen the blood flow, my response would have been much less enthusiastic.

When I think back, uncomfortably, to my behavior on that day in 1981, it would also be easy just to explain it away as an example of youthful foolishness. But I’ve never been impressed by people who condescend to their younger selves, and I’m not going to do so now. Yes, I was only 15 years old, but I wasn’t a moral idiot; my problem wasn’t that I didn’t understand that only a psychotic will publicly and sincerely celebrate the murder of the president. Did I hate Reagan? No. I was no fan of his, by any means. What I knew of him at the time led me to consider him not only ignorant and foolish but someone who had carefully cultivated those characteristics—he struck me then and now as a man who wasn’t just anti-intellectual but actually anti-intellect. Also, all my favorite bands opposed him, and that carried some weight with me. Still, I wasn’t a real, sincere Reagan-hater.

But suppose I had been. So what? Would my response then have been moral or even excusable? One thing that concerns me now is the possibility that someone reading this essay might respond along the lines of, “Yes, it would have been. I would have clapped, too. And if someone kills Dubyah, I’ll clap even harder.” It frightens me to think that someone might consider an attitude like that appropriate as long as it arises from sincere political disgust, however well justified. None of us would take such a twisted position, would we?

Maybe I’m afraid of a straw man. Maybe no one really thinks that way—maybe the behavior of myself and my classmates back in 1981 represented some kind of weird, awful, but temporary and localized aberration of the human soul. I’d like to think that’s the case. But I don’t.

Ultimately, I can’t say why the others laughed and clapped and cheered. I can only say that I knew better than to react that way, but I did it anyway out of moral weakness and some degree of sheer social cowardice. I still harbor both of those character flaws, but hopefully they have less place in me now than they did then. Even more strongly, I hope that my kids—the oldest of whom will be a high school sophomore in only a few years—will be stronger and wiser when they find themselves tempted to respond in a knee-jerk, thoughtless way to a situation that calls for grace and human empathy.