The Gathering Darkness of the Blue State of Mind

Photo: Charles Ommanney/Contact Press Images

The glittering city rose up in the distance as we headed for the Lincoln Tunnel after a long day in Philadelphia getting out the vote. The Towers were gone, as if a lamp in a bright room had been switched off, but Manhattan was still there, vulnerable now but still thrilling, a luminous island crammed with the most ambitious, driven, hyper citizenry on the planet. On the radio, we’d found a station that played sixties classics; the Band was singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Annie and I were tired, eager to get home for dinner, but the news we’d heard on NPR sounded good: Zogby had Kerry ahead by a healthy margin.

Even before Election Day, I’d been experiencing uncharacteristic twinges of optimism. At cocktail parties, there had been a steady drumbeat of hopeful rumors. Arthur Schlesinger says the American people don’t like war… . Joe Klein, the Time columnist, says the polls are way off because they’re not counting college kids with cell phones… . And the huge turnout was clearly in the Democrats’ favor; in Ohio, voters were standing out in the rain for nine hours. A Republican is going to stand in the rain for nine hours to vote for George W. Bush?

The day had been frustrating but exhilarating. We had enlisted with the grass-roots organization MoveOn, and gone down to ring doorbells and drive voters to the polls. We voted at our local school on West 76th Street when the polls opened at six, picked up our rental car, and sped off for Philadelphia, wherever that was. Two hours later, we were at MoveOn’s modest headquarters in the “transitional neighborhood” of Germantown. The twenties-vintage house had kids’ drawings tacked up on the refrigerator, a worn sofa in the living room, and sports equipment on the porch. At the dining-room table, our leader, a harried schoolteacher named Judith, sat going over lists of every person in every house or apartment in the neighborhood. We were supposed to work our way down each phone number on the list, but after an hour of getting recorded messages, I was Manhattan-antsy, so Annie and I jumped in the car. We drove around aimlessly for a while, before spotting a stubbled guy in a windbreaker ambling down the sidewalk.

“Did you vote?” I yelled.

“I can’t find the polling place,” he said.

“Get in the car.”

His name was Joe. When I asked what he did, he answered, “Get beaten up.” We initially took him to the wrong polling place, and I thought we were going to lose him. “Aww, I give up,” he moaned. But I had some cookies in the car, and handed him one while we sped over to the YMCA. Success: Joe was on the rolls.

Around five, we bagged our second quarry, a pretty young woman in a state of advanced pregnancy who was lugging two bags of groceries. “I was going to vote after I dropped these off,” she said shyly. “We’ll drive you,” I said. She hesitated—never get in a car with strangers, even if they’re wearing glasses. But we finally prevailed. Two votes for Kerry. Don’t forget that Gore lost Florida by 537 votes. Two hundred sixty-nine New Yorkers canvassing Miami-Dade County as obsessively as we’d worked Germantown could have gained him the White House.

Back home, we plunked ourselves down in front of the TV and settled in for a long night of inanity from the talking heads on CNN. The New York City polls were a paradox, Wolf Blitzer burbled: On the one hand, New Yorkers were overwhelmingly against the war in Iraq; on the other, they were deeply concerned about terrorism. Wolf! Wolf! Don’t you understand that the two are inextricably linked? We’re “concerned” about terrorism because we’re concerned about the war in Iraq. The deeper we get into this war, the more despised we are by the Islamic world. War in Iraq = likelihood of attack. Why is this simple equation so hard for the American people to get?

By eleven or so, I was getting nervous. It was disturbing to see that little cluster of blue states huddled in the upper right-hand corner of the map: Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York… . Why was that configuration so familiar? Of course! The thirteen colonies! What if we’d lost the Revolutionary War? We would have ended up a tidy, boring commonwealth like Canada, or a civilized transatlantic outpost of Europe. New York could have been its cosmopolitan capital. Instead it’s perceived as a mega–Key West dominated by gays and old-fashioned liberals and progressive rich people and media pundits and academics and Jews and intellectuals and academic Jewish intellectuals—marginal, eccentric, foreign. It’s the obverse of Sally Fields’s famous Oscar cry: You really hate me!

“We’re too self-involved to listen to the rest of the country and hear through the din and clutter of the white noise that drowns out everything but our own thoughts, how afraid they are that the world is changing too fast for them and that there’s no place to hide,” says the CUNY historian and biographer David Nasaw. Put simply, they don’t care about the same things we care about. Very few of the people lined up at the fish counter of Zabar’s are fretting about their right to bear arms.We live in a post-Copernican universe. Manhattan thought it was the Earth and that all the planets—the red states—revolved around it. Only it turns out that the red states are the sun. The center will not hold because it’s not the center. Remember that much-reproduced Saul Steinberg cover that showed the United States from the typical New Yorker’s perspective? New York City stretched almost to the Pacific; the rest of the country was a sliver. Now we’re the ones who’ve vanished on the horizon.

I set the alarm for 1 A.M. and crashed. When I resumed my bleary vigil, concern turned to panic. It was all up to Ohio now, and Ohio was 52 percent Bush, 48 percent Kerry. Click. “I felt like Charlie Brown after Lucy yanks the football away for the umpteenth time,” a friend said later.

Up again at six, I heard the Times’ heavy thump in the hall: BUSH HOLDS LEAD. In the kitchen, I turned on WQXR; the mellifluous, cultivated voice of Annie Bergen introduced some tootling Haydn wind ensemble. Do you mean there’s still going to be civilization? Classical music, summaries of the week’s New York Times Book Review, murmurous programs on the “Treasures of Ancient China” exhibit at the Met? New Yorkers are so sensitive. Think how worried we are about our image abroad: When I was last in Paris, the concierge at the Pont Royal was so rude to me. I don’t think people realize how many enemies we’ve made… . The Republican line on foreign policy is less agonized: Who gives a fuck?

On the Fifth Avenue bus, I gazed blankly out the window. The trees in Central Park were still in their vivid autumn plumage, red, yellow, and green set on fire by the early sun. I found myself thinking that what my friend Edgar, the radical novelist, calls “incremental fascism” doesn’t seem so incremental anymore. There will be a draft, and we’ll have to leave the country: No way I’m letting our 17-year-old son, Will, be sent to Iraq. They’ll drill the Alaskan tundra for oil, and the polar ice caps will melt; Manhattan will be inundated like in The Day After Tomorrow. They’ll teach creationism in the schools; our grandchildren will scratch their armpits like orangutans and laugh, “Can you believe people used to think we were descended from apes?” Anyone who belonged to Students for a Democratic Society 35 years ago will be fingerprinted. The Patriot Act will be broadened to stifle dissent in the media—Paul Krugman will be sent to Gitmo. The deficit will mount, and they’ll loot Social Security; I’ll end up in an SRO on upper Broadway. And the Jews will be rounded up like in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Did only Paul Wolfowitz stand between us and concentration camps in Kentucky? New York will be attacked again and … Wait. Maybe the guys in power want us to be attacked. What better way to get rid of all those noisome New Yorkers than to have an Al Qaeda dirty bomb explode in Grand Central at rush hour? No more need to bail out New York, because there won’t be any New York.

In my office, I surveyed the detritus of the ground war on my desk: contact numbers, campaign brochures, directions to Philadelphia. I flicked on my computer. A message from MoveOn, dated November 2, 5:20 A.M.: “This is it. If you haven’t voted yet, now is the time.” I stared at the screen. Why was the sensation that gripped my heart so familiar? All at once it came to me: It was the same sensation I get when I notice the black-framed photograph of my late father on the wall. He’s gone, and he’s not coming back.

The Gathering Darkness of the Blue State of Mind