I remember the year my father went to sleep during the Democratic National Convention. It was 1968. I was homeit was the summer after my first year in college. It was 10 o’clock on a Wednesday night in August. My mother had been in bed since 9:30.
In the streets of Chicago, long-haired people were rolling empty trash cans around and flipping birds at police officers. The black-and-white TV screen was exploding with silver bursts of police-car light. The police officers were waving sticks, and there was talk about tear gas. Long-haired people were lying down in the streets. Police officers were picking them up and loading them into the backs of screen-doored Police Department trucks.
My father flipped down the footrest lever on his Barcalounger and said, “I thought I was gonna to see the news.”
I said, “Daddy, this is a very sad moment in our nation’s history.” I said, “We are sitting here watching democracy fall apart.”
My father said, “I want to see the Tonight show. I don’t wanta see any more of that stuff.”
I said, “Don’t you want to see who they nominate for president?”
My father said, “This ain’t The Miss America Pageant. I already know how it comes out.” He stood up and started unzipping his pants.
“Somebody’s gonna get hurt with one of them trash cans,” he said. “I gotta get up tomorrow morning and sell Oldsmobiles.” I heard him shut the door to the bathroom. I heard the commode flush.
Because my father had been in the war, he had voted for Harry S. Truman. For the same reason, he had voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower. Because he did not know any Catholics, he had voted for Richard Nixon. He had voted for Lyndon Baines Johnson, he said, not because Lyndon Baines Johnson was really a Southerner but because Lady Bird was my mother’s third cousintwice removed, as best my mother could count.
He had never seen an actor elected to anything. Because he had never been to college, he had never met a political science major. He had never had reason to make use of a lawyer. I am relatively sure that, in all his life, he had never heard the words “Rhodes scholar” spoken aloud.
My father had seen the Democratic Convention on television for years, and he had seen the Republican Convention too. For years before that, he had listened to them on the radio. Even before he had ever heard a radio, however, he had known people who could imitate Franklin D. Roosevelt. My father knew what a president was supposed to sound like. Even John F. Kennedy, he said, could make sense in a speech. That was why, my father said, he was glad we had plugged in our television set before the 1956 convention. “That’s how I really got to know Dwight D. Eisenhower,” my father said, at the age of 40. “If I’da never seen him on the TV, I’da never known what he was really like.”
In 1956 my father had never seen a computerized recreation of a murder scene. He had never seen a tape-loop instant replay of an extra-point kick. He had never seen a TelePrompTer. My father figured, if the president of the United States was making a speech while the entire nation was watching on TV, he had to be making it up on the spot. Otherwise, he figured, there would have been note cards. Otherwise, there would have been no reason for watching television at all.
On the black-and-white TV, the convention was all there was to see. There was a coliseum, filled with smoke and people wearing non-imitation straw hats. In the gallery there were women in summer dresses and white gloves and little hats, all of which looked pearly-gray on the black-and-white TV. On the floor of the coliseum there were men in their shirtsleeves. Late at night, the men loosened their ties. Because it was August, and the city was always Dallas or Baltimore or Cleveland, Ohio, there was always a lot of sweat. You could see it rolling down the men’s faces. You could see it making wet places under their arms.
This was hard work. Clearly, it was no job for ladies. The convention floor smelled of sweat and cigars and half-eaten hot dogs. The whole place stank. You could tell it, just by looking at the television set.
There was Howard K. Smith and Eric Sevareid and John Cameron Swayze. They talked fast, for fear the Communist delegation might get seated before they even noticed, for fear the black delegates might get credentialed and cause the entire state of Mississippi to stand up and walk right out of the hall. They did not spend a lot of time talking about Mamie Eisenhower’s whereabouts. On black-and-white TV, Mrs. Eisenhower was very seldom asked for her opinion. Mrs. Nixon was not asked to make introductory remarks.
Even when the voting came down to Vermont and Wisconsin and Wyoming, there was no chance to break away for a commercial. Even in Vermont and Wisconsin and Wyoming, people had stayed up and were watching, hoping that, on the off-chance of a deadlock, they might be able to make a difference, hoping that, through all the cigar smoke and rumpled white shirts and flaccid serpentina, they might at least see the sweaty face of somebody they knew.
My father saw no reason to stay up and watch what was going on in the streets of Chicago in the summer of 1968. He said the long-haired people being hauled into the police vans did not look like any Americans he had ever seen before. He said they did not look like people who ought to be registered voters. He said that, as far as he was concerned, what he saw on the TV did not look like it was really going to be history at all. By 1968 he knew everything there was to know about TV. He knew that what he was watching might be something that was not really happening at all.
By that time he had learned that the entire chorus on The Lawrence Welk Show was lip-synching and that Saturday-night wrestling was pre-choreographed. Whether or not he stayed up and watched what was going on in the streets of Chicago, he figured, it was always going to come out the same. It would be there, taped, replayed on the news during the Today show.
I sat up through that Wednesday night, watching the streets of Chicago. Sometime around midnight, I heard my father call from the darkness, “Turn that stuff off. I gotta get up at 6:30.” I turned the volume down, but I kept looking for the faces of people I knew.
This year they nominated another president in Chicago. This time, in the crowd, I saw people whom I can call by their first names, people who, I know, were really there, people who really exist.
This time, however, after the nominee finished his speech, the band was not playing “Happy Days Are Here Again” or “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” Instead, the band was playing “Only the Beginning.” If the announcer had not reminded me, I would have forgotten that, years ago, it had been a hit for a band called Chicago. I was not sure why, at that very moment, I was hearing it at all. It did not seem to go with the pictures on my color TV.
I said to myself, “You are getting to be just like your father.” I turned off the TV and switched off the lamp on the bedside table. In the darkness I began to take off my pants.