Letter from America: After the Storm
By David Fedo
Not long into the afternoon of an unusually cold and blustery day early this past November, I stood in a long line at a small fire station near my home in a northern suburb of Boston, waiting to cast my vote for the incumbent Barack Obama, running once again for the office of President of the United States. In some ways, this could have been another of the illustrator and painter Norman Rockwell's iconic portraits, a piece of Americana, with citizens of many races and religions asserting their democratic rights in a moment of harmony. But the line here, and the lines everywhere that day in all 50 states, were much longer than usual because Americans preparing to vote were deeply divided, and in some cases in bitter disagreement, on the issues and direction of the country, and thus differed strongly on who should be its leader. They wanted their opposing voices to be heard.
Many Americans, like me, had voted for Obama in 2008 and were voting for him once again, even though more than a few supporters had been disappointed by the perceived modest accomplishments of his first term. An almost equal number were projected to be voting for the businessman and former governor of my home state of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, whose campaign for the presidency had been in full throttle for years. Romney had voted just a few hours earlier than I had, but in his far tonier hometown of Belmont, Massachusetts, just a few miles away from my residence in Medford.
I had just returned to the US in August, after more than five years of living and working in Singapore, but I knew, like everyone, that the stakes for the election were extraordinarily high. Obama, the first African-American President and a Democrat, ran on a pledge to make the economic life easier for low and middle-income Americans, and to somehow accelerate the lacklustre job growth of the past four years. (Unemployment in the US has mostly hovered around 8 per cent.) His position on international and social issues was far more liberal than Romney's, whose five-point "plan for America" sustained tax cuts for the wealthy, a carryover from the failed presidency of George W. Bush, as well as a more aggressive posture abroad, especially vis-ŕ-vis China. Romney was a Mormon – the first ever of his religion to seek America's highest office – but that didn't keep the evangelical Christian contingent of the so-called ultra-conservative and Republican-affiliated Tea Party from rallying behind him. The campaign was often fractious and ugly, with well over US$2 billion spent by the presidential and other candidates for the various state and local offices.
I eventually cast my ballot for Obama and Elizabeth Warren, the liberal Democratic candidate for Senator in Massachusetts, and then along with my wife Susan spent a nervous afternoon waiting for the results to trickle in later that evening on CNN and the three TV networks. We expected it to be a long night, and unpleasant memories of the Democrat presidential candidate Al Gore – who won the popular vote in 2000, and of the ensuing debacle in Florida which ended up with the US Supreme Court depriving him of his victory against the feckless George W. Bush – were not far away.
But amazingly – and stunning almost all of the pundits and poll-watching junkies – the results from almost all states came in with few surprises. (Florida's were late once again.) Obama won some 60 million votes nationwide, or 50 per cent of those recorded, as opposed to Romney's 58 million, or 48 per cent. But where the votes really count, in America's arcane policy of selecting "electors" in each state, who represent the number of state legislators, actually occurs in what is called the "electoral college". And here, Obama, who needed just 270 electoral votes to win, amassed 303, including those coming through wins in the states of Ohio, Iowa, Virginia and Pennsylvania, which were thought to go either way. Romney totalled just 206.
Interestingly, Obama did much better with women voters than men (I was among the exceptions, apparently); he also won 93 per cent of the African-American vote, 73 per cent of Asian voters and 71 per cent of Hispanics. By all accounts, it was a huge victory for Democrats and their partisans (Elizabeth Warren also won her race, defeating the incumbent Scott Brown), and a devastating blow to Mitt Romney and all of the Republicans. I thought, perhaps too smugly, "All's well that ends well!"
It may be worth reporting a further word or two on the Asian-American voters, who now constitute 3.4 per cent of the American electorate, a number that is up from 2.7 per cent from the election of 2008.
According to The Boston Globe, 49 per cent of Asians in the US identify themselves as Democrats (the party of President Obama), with only 17 per cent saying they are Republicans. Another 34 per cent call themselves Independents. In polls, Obama won favourable ratings on the other major policy issues, including his executive order exempting young illegal immigrants from deportation. In a question on who "cares" most about Asian-Americans, Obama beat Romney by 47 to 14 per cent. The President's subsequent trip to Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand just a few days after winning his second term received wide approval from Asian-Americans, as well as from the host countries themselves.
Still, after all of the hoopla, governing in difficult times is not as simple as winning a campaign for higher office, as challenging and even exhausting as that may be, and Obama faces a very daunting four years ahead. On the face of it, as of this writing, the political landscape in the American Congress, especially in the House where the Republicans will still retain the majority (now 232 to 191), may make it difficult for him to move ahead on many of his initiatives, including those on education, taxes and jobs. Compromise between opposing parties – most famously played out successfully in contemporary American history by the Republican President Ronald Reagan and the Democrat Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill – seems to be a thing of the past, thanks in my view to the rabid Tea Partyers. As George Packer wrote in a recent issue of The New Yorker (October 29/November 5, 2012), "The people Washington now attracts tend to be committed activists, who think of themselves as locked in an existential struggle over the fate of the country, and are unwilling to yield an inch of ground."
What has been and will continue to be the most urgent matter on the agenda for both parties is the mandated legislation which could result, by January of 2013, in some significant and debilitating spending cuts and tax increases, in order to reduce the run-away American deficit. (These cuts and tax increases have been termed the "financial cliff".) It will be up to President Obama and the legislative leadership of both parties to somehow work together and craft a solution which will avoid a potential disaster. It is hard for me to imagine a similar crisis in Singapore, imperfect though the system in the Republic may be, where the government and the opposition party are at least not paralysed by dysfunctional and prolonged self-interest. The President's public address just following the election was a hopeful sign that both sides may be able to find a way to agreement. In the US, everyone is waiting to see what will happen, and the result will almost certainly have an impact around the globe.
Late in October, just a few days before the election, Hurricane Sandy swept up the East Coast of the United States with devastating results, with terrible damage inflicted on the two states of New York and New Jersey. Sandy came just before the critical election, and thus President Obama and Governor Romney had to interrupt their campaigning to attend to the misery of the unfortunate victims. The storm was sneaky, in that while it was expected, the force of Sandy was far stronger than had been predicted, sweeping away houses situated by the furious Atlantic Ocean and causing a disastrous fire in Queens, New York, which torched some 100 homes. More than 120 Americans died from the dangerous water and wind. Thousands were out of power for many days. And shortly after Sandy, another storm called a "Northeaster" paid a visit to the devastated East Coast with more rain, wind and even snow. The newspaper headlines screamed, "Outages, other woes persist; shelters still full." We even had some snow and downed trees and power lines up in Boston, which is very unusual before winter officially arrives later in December.
Don't tell most Americans there is no such thing as global warming!
Hurricane Sandy brought back to many Americans unhappy memories of Katrina, the violent hurricane of 2005 which decimated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and which shamefully still shows the scars of that storm. But in some ways Sandy may have helped Obama in the final days of the campaign, as he was able to assert his leadership in quickly prompting governmental assistance to the many victims; he looked presidential. It didn't hurt that New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie, a stalwart Republican, went out of his way to praise Obama for his concern and help in mobilising the official agencies to provide help.
Barack Obama is a famously "cool" personality, but in the days following Sandy he displayed real emotion and concern for the victims and for all Americans who are still struggling with a sluggish economy and declining wages. In short, he was thoroughly engaged. I would only urge that, as the President enters his second term, he will bring the troops back from Afghanistan faster than originally scheduled. The killing and destruction that continue in the interminable war in that sad country cannot be halted by the ongoing presence of American and NATO soldiers.
Although the name of the American polymath and multi-talented author Gore Vidal may not be well-known in Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia, and although he lived much of his later life on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, he was a preeminent American "man of letters" who, according to The New York Times, was an "Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right." Vidal, who died last July at his home in Hollywood, California, was 86 years old. His literary output was uneven but remarkably prodigious: I counted 34 novels, eight plays, 26 books of essays and non-fiction, and at least 15 screenplays (including Ben Hur) among his oeuvre. He was, Newsweek magazine reported, "the best American man of letters since Edmund Wilson." (Wilson was the eminence grise in American literary circles for years in the last century; he had died in 1972, after a brilliant career as a writer and public intellectual.)
Known for his diverse output, Vidal was also a controversial and even notorious figure, engaging in widely-publicised feuds with such figures as the novelists, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, and the journalist, William F. Buckley, Jr. These squabbles were borne of hostilities carried over years, but they sometimes burst out on live television (for example, The Dick Cavett Show, 1971), where Mailer famously head-butted Vidal before the show began, and at the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions, where Vidal and Buckley were hired as TV commentators. It was here that Vidal called Buckley, a staunch conservative, a "crypto-Nazi", and Buckley called Vidal a "queer". These slights ended up in suits and counter-suits; one surmised that Vidal, feisty and growing more curmudgeonly with every year, loved it all. The UK had Christopher Hitchens; America had Gore Vidal.
Vidal arrived on the literary scene with his novel, The City and the Pillar, which, in 1948, was a candid and, for the time, even shocking portrayal of homosexuality. Gore had always insisted that most members of the human species were neither straight nor gay but rather "pansexual", and he carried that theme throughout his many works. His 1968 novel, Myra Breckinridge, probably his most sensational work, was called a "transsexual comedy". The book begins with Vidal teasing the reader: "I shall not begin at the beginning since there is no beginning, only a middle in which you, fortunate reader, have just strayed, still uncertain as to what will be done to you in the course of our common voyage to my interior."
Among his many other works of fiction, including his fictionalised histories (Julian, Lincoln, Washington, DC), one of the strangest was Duluth (1983), whose title is the name of a city in northern Minnesota that just happens to be my birthplace. Here, Vidal resets the normally frigid city overlooking a vast Lake Superior as instead an unlikely place of palm trees where, when its citizens die, they become cast members of a TV show. The critic Harold Bloom dismissed the book's weirdness, asserting in The Paris Review (Fall, 1995) that the novel was "a rather squalid work unworthy of the great man".
But it is through Vidal's wonderful reviews and essays – insistent, restless, compelling and usually prescient – that his reputation will be sustained. These non-fiction pieces, appearing regularly for many years in The Nation, The New York Review of Books and Esquire, among other periodicals, and collected in United States: Essays 1952-1992 and The Last Empire (2000), were often political and provocative. A frequent target was George W. Bush, but in typical fashion, Vidal skewered people on both sides of the political spectrum. (He took no comfort in the 2008 election of Barack Obama.) As Vidal got older, the tone of his work became even darker. The Daily Telegraph wrote that he "delighted in chronicling what he perceived as the disintegration of civilisation around him." As for me, for all of his brilliance, I do hope that Gore Vidal's melancholic vision of the future, for the US and the world, does not come to pass.
– D.F., November 2012QLRS Vol. 12 No. 1 Jan 2013