The Most Charismatic Ape
The New Girl
I was nine years old the first time I remember hearing the word impeachment. Sometime in the months preceding President Richard Nixon’s resignation, I saw a political cartoon in the newspaper that depicted the president stuffed into a donut-shaped life preserver and helplessly caught up in a raging river called “Watergate.” Having myself nearly drowned while swimming across a pond that same summer, I was immediately and deeply sympathetic to his plight. The president was in trouble. The dam had broken, and he was in danger of going under. I wanted to help. So I did what any newly politically aware boy would do in the 1970s—I wrote a letter to the White House.
The letter was short and sympathetic. I explained that I had recently learned about his troubles, and though I was not entirely sure what Watergate was, I said I wanted to help. I then finished the letter by signing it and taping two quarters beneath my signature. I sealed the envelope and then walked it out to the mailbox (and before anyone complains that I was cheap, even by a child’s standards, let me say in my defense that the purchasing power of 50 cents in 1974 was equivalent to $2.61 today).
A few weeks later, I received a thin package in the mail from the White House addressed to me. Inside was a brochure celebrating “The Nixon Family in the White House,” which was filled with photographs of the Nixons and a typed form letter thanking me for my support. Perhaps hoping to dim my naive enthusiasm for a criminally corrupt president, my mother, a Democrat, explained that the president himself had probably not personally signed the letter but instead someone who works for the president using a special stamp that replicated his signature. It was very unlikely that the President had even seen my letter, she said. This dose of reality hardly made a dent. I have kept the letter and the brochure to this day, evidence of my connection to an American president.
It was another twenty-five years before impeachment was again in the news and on my mind. I was a full-grown man by then. If Nixon’s near-impeachment and resignation was told in newsprint, President Bill Clinton’s full-on impeachment was a glossy porno mag. His enemies tried to depict him as a corrupt individual, an abuser of power, and a bad man who lied under oath, but the sin that shone through most was his lechery and infidelity (maybe that was the point all along, to flatten him with the great cudgel of American Puritanism). His impeachment did not seem “historic” to me. It was salacious entertainment. My friends and I eagerly discussed the sexual minutia of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal over drinks. It was someone’s dirty secret dragged out into the light, a president’s dirty secret. We knew they acted like this, that they all had affairs, and now we finally had the proof detailed in a 137-page Special Prosecutor’s report. We laughed and wondered aloud what Hillary was thinking when she found out. We criticized Bill’s taste in women. We turned the presidency inside out, me and my friends and millions of other gossips speculating about the same things—the cigar, the semen-stained blue dress, did he or did he not actually have sex with that woman? We trampled the presidency underfoot. We smashed it around and carved out its guts so that we could wear it like an animal hide, feeling its viscera on our skin.
Only later would it occur to me that a president’s life might be lonely and unfulfilling, pathetic even—that the “most powerful man in the world” might be something less than a mature, emotionally sophisticated adult. All of that power and influence and what he really wants is to play five minutes in the closet with the new girl, like when he was thirteen years old.
"No way our species survives that long"
While the first Trump impeachment spectacle was unfolding in January 2020, the President was also in the news for beefing with the rock band REM, who did not approve of him using their song "Everybody Hurts" at his rallies. This was not a new story. The band had complained in 2015 when Trump was playing their hit song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” as his walkout theme.
That's great, it starts with an earthquake Birds and snakes, and aeroplanes And Lenny Bruce is not afraid
Why is Lenny Bruce not afraid? And before I even realized what was happening, I was back in 1987 again, the year REM’s album Document was on radio stations and MTV and in the cassette player in my car. I was twenty-two years old when I first heard this song, a junior at a state college in New Jersey. I played the cassette over and over, and because I had also played my Lenny Bruce cassettes over and over, I made what I thought at the time was a meaningful connection.
He is not afraid of The Bomb.
Back then, I was gripped by numb terror at the prospect of a president going to war. Like many Americans, I had heard President Reagan joke on national TV about bombing Russia, and I had been traumatized by The Day After, the morbid and terrifying made-for-television movie about the aftermath of a nuclear war. I became obsessed with nuclear war. I read articles about nuclear fallout, about how Strontium 90 could poison the food chain after a nuclear attack, for example. I photocopied maps that depicted American cities like New York and Washington D.C. with concentric circles drawn to indicate the blast radius of a hydrogen bomb, each ring representing a different cluster of horrific outcomes.
I would sometimes cruise slowly past fallout shelters at 2 a.m., drunk and spiraling through my own personal dark night of the soul. What would happen if the war actually happened, I wondered? I could not stop thinking about this question. By my junior year, I had composed a mental map of locations of fallout shelters all over the city. I knew, of course, that the national government had long ago ceased making serious plans for the aftermath of a nuclear war. There were no “duck and cover” drills anymore. No one was building underground fallout shelters in the backyard and stocking them with canned goods and bags of rice in order to ride out the nuclear apocalypse. The government had stopped printing cheerful pamphlets about how to survive nuclear fallout, but I had read the old ones on microfiche in the campus library—every one of them.
Let’s say you could actually travel back in time and find me in this state of generalized existential anxiety and then prophesy to me that Donald Trump will be elected president in 2016, what would I say?
“No way our species survives that long.”
Very Important People
Apropos of that famous REM song, I also saw Michael Stipe on the Late Show recently explaining to Stephen Colbert how he once told Donald Trump to shut up at a Patti Smith concert in New York City in 1999. According to Stipe, Trump was with a date sitting near him in the VIP section of the venue and apparently talking loudly during the performance. Stipe, who is friends with Patti Smith and who observed that she was nervous at the start of the performance, did the gallant thing and told the loudmouth guy to be quiet. Trump left soon afterward.
What I find extraordinary about this story is the question that Colbert did not ask: what was Donald Trump doing at a Patti Smith concert? It seems an obvious question, as Donald “total authority” Trump appears at first glance to be the perfect ideological foil for Patti “power to the people” Smith, but maybe I am approaching the question from the wrong angle. Maybe in the micro-universe of Very Important People, ideology does not matter, or more to the point, celebrity generates its own ideology which measures the value of a human life from the perspective of who gets to stand closest to the most well-known person in the room. After all, Michael Stipe is sitting across from Stephen Colbert telling a story about sharing the VIP section with Donald Trump while his buddy Patti Smith is performing onstage. This is not a story about ordinary people; it is celebrity drama in the VIP room.
If you live long enough, all of your heroes will let you down.
I said that.
The Most Charismatic Ape
I have my own Very Important Person story involving Donald Trump. As unlikely as it may seem, this story is set on the elevated express lane that runs parallel to Route 75 North in Cobb County, Georgia, on the afternoon of November 8, 2019, while I was traveling at approximately 60 miles per hour. I was driving home from work across the Northern rim of Metro Atlanta, and when I entered the paid express lane, I immediately noticed something strange in my peripheral vision. The six-lane highway to my right, normally a traffic jam of commuters heading home from their jobs in Atlanta, was entirely empty.
And then I remembered: The President and Vice President were in town. Yes, there had been announcements about road closures and traffic delays. This must be it.
I slowed down so I could more safely glance to the right. At first, I saw nothing, but after about fifteen seconds, a dozen police cars came creeping into view, lights flashing, and behind them, a caravan of five black SUVs. The president was almost certainly sitting in one of those cars.
Speed it up a notch.
I pressed the accelerator to match the convoy’s speed. I can’t explain why, but I desperately wanted to keep pace with those black SUVs.
At this point, in the interests of full transparency, I should pause to share my admittedly exotic opinion of the American Presidency: After a lifetime of observing powerful men move in and out of the White House, I have concluded that I do not in fact need a president. I never asked to be governed from afar (and yes, I am fully informed on the intricacies of our Constitutional form of government, which has long been touted as the best governmental system on Earth but lately looks like a slow-motion train wreck). If I'm being honest about it, The Office of the President, along with every occupant of it since Lyndon B. Johnson, was foisted upon me as a condition of my having been born in the United States, much like internal combustion engines, fluoride, and the pledge of allegiance. And to make matters worse, in five decades, I have watched the presidency grow more powerful, more prone to abuse, and more dangerous.
That danger was never more evident than on January 6, 2021, when President Trump unleashed a mob of his brownshirts on the U.S. Capitol complex. Because of this awful event, I was forced to endure a second Trump impeachment, my fourth, if you count Richard Nixon, which you are in no way obligated to do.
Yes, it is true that I get to vote. Every four years I am privileged to participate in selecting a single lively bonobo, mountain gorilla, or orangutan to live in a White House and play alpha male with real soldiers and nuclear weapons—a contest to choose the most charismatic ape.
If only there was someplace I could go to hide.
I was driving in perfect sync with the presidential convoy now, which was just fifty feet to my right. I thought, I could probably throw a shoe and hit the president's car from this distance, which, of course, I would never do.
Well then, what kind of government would YOU prefer? (This is the old canard they use to shut you down the moment your mind floats free of the mental cage they’ve kept you in for your whole life. They force you to design, on the fly, an entirely new form of government, and when you can’t do it, they will declare victory and say something utterly banal like, “Winston Churchill once said democracy is the worst form of government ... except for all the others.”)
No, actually, I prefer to govern myself, thank you.
What are you, some kind of anarchist?
Emma Goldman, a bona fide anarchist, is rumored to have said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” I do not think she is entirely right about this, but then I remember that nearly half of the voting-eligible electorate stays home on Election Day, and I wonder, what do they know that I don’t?
I still vote, for the same reason I sometimes pray, out of habit and an occasional hope that there are actually gears turning out there somewhere.
The President’s motorcade slowed to exit from the highway so I was forced to break away from my parallel drive. At that moment, as I watched the line of black cars disappear from view, this thought flashed through my mind:
You, sir, are the most charismatic ape. Congratulations and good luck.