The Loyal Opposition
On being a Mets fan at Yankee Stadium, and a Republican at a Manhattan dinner party.
The Wall Street Journal: October 27, 2000
On Saturday I went to the opening game of the World Series, at Yankee Stadium. I felt so lucky: I had a friend with tickets. It was so exciting, really inspiring. It had been two years since I’d been to the stadium, enough time for everything to look new to me—the soft, thick-striped grass, the beautiful mauve-beige of the dirt of the diamond.
I was with friends from college whom I love, and I couldn’t have been happier. I found myself absurdly moved by the thousands of brilliant, sharp lights that exploded through the bleachers as the first pitch was thrown and everyone took pictures to bring home and say, “See, I was there.” And by the handmade signs—”Truth, Justice, and the American League,” “All Aboard.” But the sweetest was a banner held by a man just below us in the right-field seats: “The Luckiest Fans on the Face of the Earth.” After of course the great speech Lou Gehrig gave when, mortally ill, he tipped his hat goodbye to the people of New York.
Well, lucky is what we are.
We took the subway into the Bronx and it was packed. We made friends with a group of young men, and all of us got lost at 125th Street when we jumped on the wrong train. But a stranger with a shaved head in a sleeveless undershirt took us under his wing and led us off at 149th Street in the Bronx. From there we walked to the stadium, or rather toward it; we couldn’t see it against the skyline but we followed a great glow of lights in the darkness, and then headed toward a blimp with blinking lights, and soon we were there, in the great gray coliseum.
There were four of us, two Yankees fans, and a friend and I for the Mets. We made ourselves unfashionable by cheering for Mike Piazza, and when I got home I found myself singing a song called Benny Abgayani, to the tune of “Gary Indiana,” from “The Music Man.” Baseball is so seductive, you can find yourself ignoring it all year, as I do, and then the series comes or a McGwire hits 61 home runs and you find yourself with moist eyes, cheering.
We all agreed the dreaded Yankees, whom of course we root for when they’re playing a team from America, are the team of Manhattan imperialism, the team of the powerful—of Wall Street greedheads and deputy mayors and union chiefs and the kind of people who used to be called Broadway swells. And of course immigrants and working people.
Whereas the Mets, my Metties, are the team of square, flat Long Island and the striving unchic boroughs—the team of the middle and working class. Mets fans aren’t the poor and the downtrodden, they’re in more trouble than that. In a country in which status is everything, the Mets are the team of the nobodies. They are the team of those lacking in status, the ones with no special claims, the people who’ll never be in style. God bless all Met fans, a hardy crew that don’t give a damn.
Democrats, God bless them, are Yankees; they’re better. Republicans, God love them, are Mets; they hate the guys who are better. Hillary is, these days, she says, a Yankee. Lazio is, of course, and has declared, a Met. Gore would be a Yankee, Bush would be a Met. Although years ago he fired Bobby Valentine. But Valentine’s still for him, so there you are.
Anyway it was a wonderful game with thrills, chills and spills, but somehow the most memorable part of the night for me, or the image that lingered, was on the train on the way to 149th Street. All around us as I said were pumped-up guys and poppas with sons and lots of jostling and yelling—and in the middle of the sea of noise was a young woman in a black jacket, holding close a delicate little baby, in a blue-and-white cotton blanket. He slept in her arms. She was black, maybe 30, and her baby had thick, wavy black hair, and I stood near them to be a buffer in case someone pushed or got raucous. After a while I sat down and looked and asked how old.
“Two months,” she said.
“Oh, congratulations, he’s beautiful,” I replied.
“Thank you,” she said, so softly.
She was all alone, apart from all the hubbub, and she stared straight ahead, alone with her dignity, looking toward a window. And as we got off I wondered where she was going and who would meet her, and I wanted to kiss the baby, to kiss his thick-haired head, and my friend looked at her and me and he smiled.
She was all alone. It’s hard to remember that so many Americans are all alone. Last night on television, on Fox, they said one of the biggest parts of the undecided vote in the presidential election is people who live alone . . .
On Monday I stayed home with a pain in my neck—literally a pain in my neck—and had a good time watching Bush and Gore on television. It’s wonderful with all-news cable channels and C-Span that you can watch, live, the campaign unfolding in Nevada and Ohio and Tennessee. It didn’t use to be like that—you used to have to read the newspapers! You used to have to trust the reporter that the crowd went wild or the crowd was small or the candidate sniffled. Now you just have to see what you see. It’s a great gift, and has made all of us anchormen. I am the anchor of my mother-friends; I keep them up on what’s happening.
George W. Bush and Al Gore were slugging it out down South on MSNBC, clashing over education and Social Security. Mr. Bush looks happy and pumped; he prowls the stage like an infomercial master. Mr. Gore stands straight with a mike and looks sweaty and distracted. He never loses his place in the speech, but he keeps raising his voice, as if he thinks the man who talks loudest wins.
Here is Mr. Bush saying: “I am running against a man who is of Washington, for Washington, by Washington.”
The biggest difference between Mr. Bush on the stump 10 months ago and Mr. Bush today is that back then he used to look as if he was afraid he’d win, and now he looks as if he knows he’ll win and is happy about it. I will never forget what he said when I saw him in a speech in New York this summer. “Ahm becomin’ the president. I’m becomin’ it.” He meant he was . . . well, becoming the president, absorbing the fact of it. I thought: Good.
But something makes me nervous about Mr. Bush when he’s winning. A triumphalism, an assumption that good things happen to good people. He is a good man. He’d be a better man if his life had been harder. But you can’t have everything.
I was thinking the other night: Mr. Bush seems the least radical politician in America. He lives in the middle of the land of the possible. He is by nature moderate, by habit and thinking a moderate man. Mr. Gore, with his fevered brow and his dramatic eyes, looks like a man who could be radical—ban all cars!—and who would see his radicalism as proof of his own authenticity.
On Tuesday night a dinner with seven jolly adults. We are friends or friends of friends, and we gather in an apartment in Manhattan, on Central Park West. As we eat the conversation turns to why Al Gore is a liar—that is, what makes him lie, what is it in him? Of the seven, one (me) is a Republican, one a conservative Democrat, the rest Democrats of various points on the liberal spectrum—a former great union leader, a teacher of the theater, sophisticates of all sorts.
Someone says Mr. Gore doesn’t lie so much as embellish and exaggerate. I say no, he actually lies. He makes up stories that are not true. Everyone nods, some sadly.
“But why?” says a woman, with a perplexed look.
“I think” I say, “that what has perhaps happened with Gore is that he is so used to a certain amount of built-in dishonesty in his political positions that when he stands up to speak, the dishonesty stands up with him, and gets a voice, and is allowed to talk. He becomes confused between truth and lies.”
“That is a sympathetic interpretation,” says an intelligent man, and I’m surprised, because if I seemed sympathetic then I wasn’t getting my point across. Then the conversation goes off in different directions.
But this is what I meant and what I’m thinking, and I think there is truth in it:
Al Gore knows that so many of the things he says and has been saying for years are lies. He knows his positions are based on lies. He talks passionately about a woman’s right to choose, and how he’ll never let anyone limit it in any way. But he knows this means he must support a procedure, partial-birth abortion, in which a full-term or almost full-term baby is pulled down from a womb, its skull punctured and its brain sucked out. This is a gruesome form of killing, and of an utterly innocent child, a little frail baby just ready to suck in clean air. It’s the kind of thing an Al Gore would never allow! But Al Gore is for it.
And Al Gore knows what it is. But he cannot oppose partial birth-abortion—or rather he feels he cannot oppose it—because he must not offend any part of his base, including pro-abortion fanatics. Real fanatics, the kind who’d kill a living baby.
On the other hand he can’t say, “I’m for killing babies!” So he says he is against partial birth abortion . . . unless the life or well-being of the mother is at issue.
But the “life or well-being” of the mother is never at issue, as Al Gore knows. That’s only code for: If you really want to get an abortion when you’re eight or nine months you can have one—as long as you say it’s necessary to your well being.
Al Gore knows all the ins and outs, all the gradations of this issue better than you and I. And he’s made his choices. In order to get what he wants—the presidency—he supports something he knows to be sick and wrong. And he lies about what it is. And it’s a big, important lie. It’s not small, like My mother used to sing “Look for the Union Label” as I fell asleep. It’s big.
Al Gore talks passionately about education—we must hire 100,000 new teachers, we must have smaller class size. But he knows the most hopeful proposal of our time to make government schools better is the school liberation movement—including scholarship-vouchers for disadvantaged kids who can, through them, get out of the local dead school and into a living school a few miles away, be it a Bible school or a Catholic school or whatever.
When people like Teddy Forstmann cough up their own money to make $100 million in voucher scholarships available for kids, the ambitious disadvantaged—immigrant kids, black mothers with three kids they’re damn well going to get out of the local hellhole and into that clean school down the road—show up in droves. They wait overnight in line to get their chance. They want choice and freedom and opportunity—just like a senator and his wife looking at all the clean private schools in Washington and trying to choose between Sidwell Friends and St. Albans.
Al Gore knows the poor deserve a chance like the one he got. He knows in his heart they’re just as deserving as he was. He knows that if you believe in equality you believe in giving parents who aren’t senators the power and autonomy to send their kids to a good local school.
But a big part of Mr. Gore’s base—the teachers unions, who see their own power diminishing in a more competitive educational environment—passionately and fiercely opposes vouchers.
So Al Gore lies and says vouchers are bad, a plot to suck money from the system and put it in ungovernable places like—well, like places where nuns teach. Can’t have that.
The list goes on and on. Al Gore knows that it is responsible and constructive to allow greater freedom and choice in Social Security. But he lies and says it’s bad.
The poor guy lies all the time. If he were dumber he wouldn’t know it, but he’s not that dumb.
This is Mr. Gore’s problem: Lies are so built into everything he stands for, everything he says, everything he campaigns on—lies are so built into him, that he can barely tell the difference between the truth and a lie anymore.
The difference doesn’t even seem important. Winning the presidency is all that matters.
And if you lie about big things like human life and the education of children and the financial freedom of adults—if you lie about those things, it barely seems worthy of notice when you make up a little story about what medicine your dog takes and whether you discovered Love Canal or invented the Internet.
If every policy you put forward is based to some degree on a lie, and the degree is often major, then a small, innocuous-seeming personal lie—”And I told Einstein, ‘No, e doesn’t equal mc, it equals mc squared!’ And his hair stood right up! I invented Einstein’s hairstyle!”—seems like nothing.
And when people point it out, it feels like they’re picking on you. That’s why Mr. Gore seems so irritated and put upon when he’s caught in those little lies. He’s used to not being caught, and he’s used to not being criticized for lying. He’s used to getting applause for it. “And I will always protect a woman’s right to choose, no matter what the mean-spirited challenge,” he says as his supporters cheer.
Once, about seven years ago, a friend of mine who is a Catholic-school teacher told me the way she sees it, a small lie is a drip of water on a rock. But small lies tend to bring more small lies, which bring more drips. Soon the drip is a torrent, and the torrent wears the rock away. That’s what you do to your character when you lie: You break it down and make it disappear. You make yourself into nothing.
That happens with politicians. It can happen with anybody. And it’s what, ultimately, puts us off about Al Gore. We know what the little lies mean.
An interesting thing happened at the dinner party. One of the women, a political figure, started banging away on the issue of abortion, saying that Mr. Bush will do away with Roe v. Wade.
“Someone should do away with it,” said a male voice. We looked. A second of silence. I can’t tell you how rarely one hears sentences like that at Manhattan dinner parties.
“What?” the woman said.
“It’s bad law!” he said. “I’m a Democrat, I’m pro-choice, but no one who has ever read the Roe-Wade decision respects it as law.”
“I respect it” says the woman.
“Have you ever read it?”
“That’s why you respect it. Because you don’t know what it says, what it argues.”
He said the ruling was undemocratic, without basis in the law, that abortion should and eventually will be thrown back to the states, for each to decide.
“Why should that happen?” the woman demands.
“Because this is a democracy. Because that’s what a democracy is, we vote on these questions.”
She says, “What if there’s a poor woman in South Dakota who wants to get an abortion, she has to go to New York?”
“Maybe” he says. He adds that democracy can be uncomfortable and imperfect, but is still democracy.
“I don’t think it’s a democracy for poor women,” the union guy says. “They don’t have democracy!”
But they do, of course. And some poor women are pro-life. And their voices deserve to be heard too. And if Roe v. Wade is repealed one day, perhaps they will be.
But how interesting it was to see someone who is never challenged, and on an issue on which fierce and talkative women are rarely challenged, at least at dinner tables with crystal and silver and smart people and good food.
And to see her, to her credit, admit she’d never read the decision to which she has plighted her troth, and which she says means the most to her of all political issues!
But you know, when you stand up to those who are used to being in the majority, or used to being a member of an elite and in a majority—when you challenge them with facts, they often crumble like the facades on the Main Street of Potemkin Village: There’s nothing there, it was all front, nothing behind it.
On the way home from the stadium that opening night of the series, after the long game, in the dark, at 2 in the morning, we got off at the 86th Street station and walked for a while. The city was bright and happy in the darkness, and crowds of people and groups of families, dad and kids, dad and mom and sleeping six-year-old, made their way past us like affluent refugees, dragging their blankets and Yankee jackets. The city these days is, and has been for some years now, so sweet and gentle, and full of the possibility of joy.
They used to sing in the Sondheim years of a city of strangers, a lonely crowd of untethered dreamers going after empty dreams. All the grit and the crime and the pace—what a scary place it was. But that was long ago, 20 and 30 years. Now as then, “another hundred people just got off of the train” but now they join a city that sees itself, once again, as the empire of possibility. We are proud again of our town. New Yorkers of a certain age are shocked to find themselves sentimental when we see the lights like a string of pearls on the bridges that cross the rivers . . . or the skyline from Jersey . . . or when we see what color the lights on the Empire State Building are tonight, as we celebrate someone’s great day. St Patrick’s, Gay pride, Puerto Rican Day . . .
We are growing sweet in our hard-shouldered city. We even don’t wear those hard-shoulder Armani suits anymore, but have softer, natural shoulders, as if we no longer have to try to scare people on the streets with our size and strength. As if we no longer have to be Al Gore, but can be nice, like Rick Lazio. We are better to each other, and kinder to strangers. We have so much to be happy about. We are the luckiest fans on the face of the earth.
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