'Seasick' on an Ocean of Rhetoric

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The night the Republican convention concluded, I had a frightening dream. ...

I was sitting in my living room with my wife, Marie, and our 3-month-old son, Matt. Honest, we were just being a family--when all of a sudden the doorbell rang. It was George Bush calling.

"Al," he said, though no one calls me Al, "I just dropped by to say how much we, the Republican Party, appreciate you and Marie starting a family. It's the family that keeps America strong. Why, if we didn't have the family ..."

"Mr. Bush," I said, "Mr. Bush ..." But I was interrupted by a sea of reporters crashing through the door with their cameras, note pads, microphones. Matt started to cry.

"Well, there's the little fella," Bush said. He smiled broadly and took hold of Matt, kissing him on the cheek. The room was lightning-lit by cameras flashing. Matt bellowed even louder.

Then a voice said, "Here, George, let a young, energetic family man show you how to quiet a baby." It was Dan Quayle.

He took Matt in his arms. "You see," he quipped, smiling broadly to the cameras as Matt quieted a bit, "I may be one humble Hoosier, but like Al here ..."

"Allan," I said.

"... I know a thing or two about the important role in American freedom played by our families."

Matt spat up on his shoulder.

As Marie and I struggled to get to Matt, making our way among the vanloads of Bush children and grandchildren pouring in through the back door, we passed the CBS booth, which had been erected next to the fireplace.

We heard Dan Rather say, "And here's the Democratic Presidential candidate now, coming in from the garage, and he's carrying--yes, he's carrying a diaper, a traditional cloth diaper."

Mike Dukakis stepped up behind Quayle. "Dan," said Dukakis, smiling broadly and offering Quayle the diaper, "this time I think you'll agree that a little 'intervention' by this Governor isn't necessarily a bad thing."

Quayle reluctantly handed my son over. As Quayle dabbed his shoulder with the traditional cloth diaper, Dukakis turned to Connie Chung. Smiling broadly, he said, "Connie, it's families like this one--little Matt, mother Marie, and Al--"

I was really getting annoyed. "Allan," I said. "Allan."

"... that make this country great. I thought at our convention as I watched Jesse Jackson's children introduce him to the delegates, I thought to myself how lucky we are to have the families we have, just how important the institution called the family is."

While Kitty Dukakis and her three children and a delegation from the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union applauded appreciatively in the dining room, I slipped Matt off the Governor's shoulder, leaving Dukakis free to field more questions from the panel of "Meet the Press," who had seated themselves on the sofa in front of him.

Marie started to feed Matt a bottle when all of a sudden, from the study, came the strains of "Deep in the Heart of Texas." The crowds surged down the hallway--carrying Marie, Matt, and me in their wake--and swelled to a halt around the figures of Lloyd Bentsen, his wife B.A., his sons, his daughter, their families, and his 94-year-old father waving and smiling broadly from a huge pink, shell, and baby-blue rostrum erected by hundreds of workers in the corner of the study.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to meet a special American family," Bentsen said. He introduced Marie and me to the crowd. The American Samoan delegation broke into a rousing chant of "We love the family!"

Bentsen quieted the demonstration and continued. "Marie and Al"--I raised my hands to my face in frustration--"know, as I do, that a college education for little Matt is slipping beyond their reach. And if the Republicans have their way," he said, pointing down at us, "don't count on any college loans to help you out!"

Cries of sympathy went up from the mostly blue-collar audience lining the hall, where speakers had been set up for those who couldn't squeeze into the study. A wave of campaign contributors poured over us, sweeping Matt out of Marie's arms and up onto the platform, where a rocking chair had suddenly appeared.

Bentsen snagged Matt, kissed his cheek, and sat him on his lap. He read to him from the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, "a fellow Dane," he told the ethnic press.

And with that, the Democrats broke into an unprecedented show of unity. Led by Jackson's children, a tide of candidates--Jackson and Dukakis in the forefront--edged onto the stage accompanied by their wives and children and grandchildren chanting the words to a new song: "We Are the Family," commissioned just for the occasion from Quincy Jones and played by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Harry Ellis Dickson conducting while standing on my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary next to the bookshelf.

A crescendo of instruments and voices brought down the the wall between the study and living room, revealing a truly thrilling sight. There, above the Lay-Z-Boy recliner, on a huge platform of their own, the Republican ticket gathered before a cheering crowd of day-care providers and burned copies of Patti Davis's Home Front.

As the flames licked the ceiling of the Living Room Dome, and Dan Quayle talked about the family being "the very heart of civilization," a tide of Reagan Democrats and fundamentalist Christians buoyed Marie, Matt, and me onto their shoulders.

Floodlights danced around us as we were carried from candidate to candidate, kissed on the cheek, patted on the head, showered with day-care vouchers, tax credits, and tuition credits, and hailed as the pioneers of a new generation.

From the kitchen to the master bedroom, from the front stoop to the patio, we were touted as the spirit of a new America, an America where miracles do happen, where a good job at a fair wage is the passport to opportunity, where we're going to forge a new era of greatness, where quiet people raise the family, pay the taxes, meet the mortgage ...

Marie woke me.

"You're so restless," she said. "What's wrong?"

"I dreamed the house was being inundated by political rhetoric," I answered. "We were being swept away by a tidal wave of support for the family."

"Did we make it out alive?"

"I think so," I said. "But near the end we were all a little seasick."

Vol. 08, Issue 02, Page 23

Published in Print: September 14, 1988, as 'Seasick' on an Ocean of Rhetoric
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