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Has a spiritual illness taken hold of America? | Column
For one thing, Americans don’t seem to agree on basic facts and brazen lying has become an epidemic in some quarters.
Clockwise from top left: The assault on the Capitol; Donald Trump; Richard Nixon, Tucker Carlson; Liz Cheney.
Clockwise from top left: The assault on the Capitol; Donald Trump; Richard Nixon, Tucker Carlson; Liz Cheney. [ Times files ]
Published Jun. 16|Updated Jun. 16

When we elders get together for a drink or dinner, we generally set aside the first 10 minutes — max! — for what one wag calls the “organ recital.” That’s when we get our health bulletins out of the way. What number COVID booster are you on? Guess which joint kicked up this time? You were in the waiting room for how long? “Aw, that sounds awful,” we sympathize, “but wait till you hear what happened to me.” When it comes to aches and pains, we compete at one-downsmanship.

Barry Golson
Barry Golson [ Barry Golson ]

It’s absolutely boring, excruciating stuff for anyone other than age-appropriate dinner companions. We’re forced to listen to each other, of course, so we can get our own turn at bat. But try this with anyone younger than 60, and you can see — actually see — eyeballs roll back into heads.

With our young granddaughters, it’s even less subtle. At the first remark about an adult’s “doctor’s visit,” they beeline for another room. Occasionally, a medical topic will keep their attention, but it better be a visible owie on a shin, a bandage with a nice bright blood spot. Problem is, it may lead to questions like, “Pops, when do old people die?”

When you’re younger, and get through the flu, (or COVID, or…) odds are you’ll reset to normal. But past a certain age, there’s less reset, more attrition. Not only do things last longer, there are more of them, and they begin to line up. Get over that stomach thing Monday, then the hip acts up Tuesday, followed by a muscle pull Wednesday, and that tickle in your throat is back on the weekend. It’s whack-a-mole.

I think about the rattle of recurring 24/7 elderly ailments as if it were an old jalopy. We own a 21-year-old SUV with 156,000 miles. I read my car magazines, dream of my next sleek, zippy four-wheeled purchase, but the old jalop won’t quit — just like its owner. With us both, the paint has faded, headlights are on dim, suspension is stiff, transmission creaks, tires wobble, fender has dings, radiator gurgles, exhaust system — you don’t want to know. But we fix one thing after the other, get it running again, and merge back onto the highway. (Yes, we know there’s a final exit ahead.)

This constant rotation of health issues, bumper to bumper, is part of life in Florida, in a state where many seniors settle in the sun to sear their saggy skin and surface their squamous cells. But it happens in the country at large, too: the same returning illnesses, over and over, like a knock in the engine that keeps coming back.

• • •

In this hot and muggy summer of 2022, all the old ills seem to be clamoring for our attention. Europe is at war. Inflation is raging. Abortion rulings and demonstrations are back. School shootings never went away, but became crueler this time as police just stood by. Our granddaughters were sheltered from the Uvalde, Texas, news, but in the car the other day, I asked if they’d been doing anything new in class. The 6-year-old said, using the same tone in which she describes her art lessons, “Yes, Pops, we did a lockdown drill.”

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We boomers had our own drills once, ducking under our desks to survive atomic attack from Russia — and even that fear is back. When I was a kid, Josef Stalin had just died, and Nikita Khrushchev was pounding his shoe at the U.N. declaring, “We will bury you!” Now, we have Vladimir Putin threatening nuclear attack over his fever dream of restoring the Soviet empire. Across Asia, even China is joining in, as its apparent president-for-life threatens merciless military retaliation should the West try to protect Taiwan.

And talk about tape loops: In June of 1973, my bride and I settled down to watch the riveting Watergate select committee hearings on television.

Under bright lights, White House lawyer John Dean, just a few years older than we were at the time, used an immortal phrase, describing a “cancer at the heart” of the Nixon presidency. It turned out — in a Lordy! moment — that there were tapes. Eventually, senators from his own party pressed Nixon to resign, and a cell block of Cabinet members and senior aides ended up behind bars.

• • •

In our current June 2022 reprise, the number of GOP heroes is drastically reduced. Liz Cheney, nearly alone on her side of the aisle, launched the Select committee’s Jan. 6 hearings with another sentence that will echo in history: “I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible. There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”

Rep. Liz Cheney
Rep. Liz Cheney [ SUSAN WALSH | AP ]

But will it? Historians may so conclude, but history’s verdict is far, far off. Historian Arnold Toynbee famously said, “History is just one damned fact after another.” But that depends on having an agreement on the facts themselves.

As to this, our waters are roiling. The current is feverish and unhealthy. You could call it a national illness. Not in my lifetime has there been less agreement among Americans about the facts. In 1973, despite our history of myth-making, and a large amount of willful ignorance, the categories were clearer. There were facts, there were opinions, and then there were conspiracy theories — for the most part, way out on the fringes of the John Birch Society. We had just three networks, a news-reporting “fairness doctrine” and, on balance, a modicum of civility.

Yes, there was lying, there has always been lying, at all levels of politics. But it was sneaky lying, behind closed doors. When caught, the liars faced consequences. Richard Nixon was turned out of office not because of the Watergate burglary, but because he tried to cover it up and lied about it. It may surprise younger readers to learn that people like me, politically opposed to Nixon, appalled by his smarm, his prejudices and his brutal conduct of the Vietnam War, look back on him as a man of at least some integrity.

In 1960, his loss to John F. Kennedy was controversial. There is plenty of evidence that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley “found” votes in Illinois for his ally JFK, tipping the national election. Nixon had a shot at winning the recount, if he had disputed the vote.

He chose not to. Most historians agree he did it for a decent, patriotic reason —to spare the country a crisis. Like Al Gore 40 years later, he conceded gracefully, for the sake of a higher principle: To preserve George Washington’s most singular legacy, the then-unprecedented peaceful transfer of power.

• • •

I’ve long been fascinated by the role conscience plays in politics. We marched against Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, and I considered him, in my youthful arrogance, the epitome of evil. Looking back, he did more for civil rights than any president, including my hero JFK. He certainly didn’t do it for the Southern votes, which the Democrats lost for a generation. He did it for his conscience. He also bequeathed us Medicare, which I make use of almost every damned day of my appointment-rich life.

Barry Goldwater scared the bell bottoms off all the lefties, yet he didn’t title his book “Use Our Nukes,” (which we claimed he wanted to do) but “Conscience of a Conservative.” It was Goldwater, with a couple of Republican colleagues, who went to Nixon to tell him it was time to resign.

All of this changed in America between 2016 and 2020. In Donald Trump, we met an individual the Founding Fathers hadn’t anticipated.

Now, what I’m about to declare isn’t a fact, it’s an opinion. I don’t put it out there as a conspiracy theory. But if selfishness, bottomless greed, contempt for democracy, personal viciousness and brazen lying have become a national epidemic in many quarters, Donald Trump was “patient zero.” He was the source, along with friends at Fox and Facebook.

At the heart of the national illness has been the incurable, relentless disease of lies. From the size of a crowd at the National Mall on his first day in office, to the Big Lie of a stolen election on his last — lies, always proudly, openly told.

In 1990, I joined in the interrogation of Trump for his most in-depth magazine interview ever. It was at his office at Trump Tower in New York. My job as an interview editor involved wrangling with movie and television stars, politicians and athletes, writers and artists — many of them ego monsters of a very high order.

But I commented that week that I had never met a more narcissistic human being. Sitting in his office, one enormous double-height wall was entirely adorned with magazine covers and newspaper headlines — all on one subject. No other art, no other photographs, just Donald Trump.

Donald Trump stands next to one of his three helicopters in this 1988 photo.
Donald Trump stands next to one of his three helicopters in this 1988 photo.

He never spoke a word, uttered a single reference, that was not about himself. He had his standard tropes even back then — “Other countries laugh at us!” — but it was centered on one person. Most well-known people, even the ego monsters, can at least pretend to have an interest in other people. They will talk about friends, or about cultural issues, or about personal values, or just trot out a little human sympathy or admiration.

Not once, not ever.

I told my wife back then that I had met someone so caught up in himself, I thought it reached the level of a mental condition. The National Institutes of Health has developed a checklist for the personality disorder of extreme narcissism. Trump seemed to meet every criterion, including using relationships primarily as a tool for gaining self-esteem, lack of empathy, entitlement, lying, breaking the law, a tendency toward aggression or violence and a total inability to admit mistakes or failure.

Well, we published his interview, didn’t we? He was always good for ratings and circulation.

• • •

I don’t claim that, back in my day, we told each other only sweet truths. For sure, we didn’t spend the 1960s singing “Kumbaya.” There were assassinations, riots and all the vitriol that is as American as cherry bombs and apple pie. Yet when it came time to settle accounts, to listen to some facts, we came together.

So, on the subject of ratings, a cheer went up last week when the ratings for the Jan. 6 hearings were announced. Twenty million, quite the crowd for 2022! But in 1973, about three out of every four Americans watched part of the Watergate hearings.

Last week, one of the four major networks decided not to even carry the first evening of hearings. During the following days of hearings, the staggering scope of Trump’s ever-shifting false election claims became clearer. New was the proof of a staggering $250 million save-the-steal funding scam, raised from MAGA true believers in cultish nonstop appeals, then diverted to other uses. Former Trump aides and Cabinet officials scrambled to say they’d tried to warn against the metastasizing Big Lie — but would still vote for him again.

This was the same network that carried Tucker Carlson’s chilling response to President Joe Biden just after the mass shooting in Uvalde. Biden, who has a pile of political problems, some at the gas pump, some at the podium, was nevertheless the right person to represent the shocked public at that moment.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit a memorial at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit a memorial at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. [ EVAN VUCCI | AP ]

After Biden asked why an 18-year-old should be able to buy two assault weapons, he said, blinking back tears, “We have to do more … for those parents lying in bed and trying to figure out will I be able to sleep again? What do I say to my other children? … May God bless the loss of innocent life on this sad day, and may the Lord be near the brokenhearted … because they are going to need a lot of help. God love you.”

As a grandfather of two elementary school children, as a one-time fourth grade teacher, I was blinking back tears myself. No matter what you think of him, could anyone have doubted Biden’s humanness and sincerity in those moments?

This is what Carlson said on Fox News, seconds after Biden left the screen. “The President of the United States. Frail, confused, bitterly partisan, desecrating the memory of recently murdered children with tired talking points of the Democratic Party ... unfit to lead this country.”

The callousness was perhaps predictable, and might not matter, except that Carlson has an audience twice the size of his counterparts at CNN and MSNBC. Like his hero, he gets ratings.

My wife, Thia, who talks to everybody, and leaves everyone feeling better, likes to say, “Catch someone doing something good and tell them.” Taking a leaf from her, I try to find moments in my life and my writing to point out when people I might not agree with act on their conscience, to the benefit of all.

When it comes to Carlson’s cold take on Fox, I just couldn’t fathom it. It so lacked in simple humanity, at a moment we all might agree called for a momentary truce. Instead, it seemed to me to point to an underlying spiritual illness.

• • •

I’m an optimist by nature, cheerful about outcomes, hopeful about silver linings. Though a lot more liberal than conservative, I’ve maintained that doing the right thing isn’t a matter of red or blue. I’m appalled by a liberal idiot stalking a Supreme Court justice’s home. And I’m appalled by a super-MAGA moron calling for gun safety by arming teachers and narrowing doors.

In daily life, it’s easy to feel melancholic about the broken state of affairs in our country, and in our world. Our news shows and our social media feeds assure us we’re coming apart. Will we ever get along again?

Then, with something as simple as an encounter at an intersection, the melancholia lifts. A guy in a Ford F-150 with a Trump sticker gives me in my jalopy with the elite university decal on the bumper a you-first nod. I wave back thanks, and we flash a grin at each other driving past. I thought of the old sappy Sinatra lyric, “That’s America to me.” In real life the conflicts don’t seem so intense.

It’s like that with my own roundabout of health issues. I finally did shake the bronchitis a couple of weeks ago, didn’t I? I put away the NyQuil, my lungs are clear, there’s a spring in my step again. Who says it has to be whack-a-mole?

Wait. Just got a chest palpitation. Give me a break. Where’d that come from?

Guest columnist Barry Golson covers the Tampa Bay senior scene. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Forbes and AARP. He is the author of “Gringos in Paradise” (Scribner). He can be reached at gbarrygolson@gmail.com.

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