The October Democratic Debate Ended with a Weird Question.
I wondered what my friend, Carol, would have thought of it.
“We have time for one more question that we would like all of you to weigh in on. Last week, Ellen DeGeneres was criticized after she and former President George W. Bush were seen laughing together at a football game. Ellen defended their friendship saying ‘We’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different.’ So in that spirit we’d like you to tell us about a friendship you’ve had that would surprise us, what impacts it’s had on you and your beliefs.”
“This is where we can turn it off, lol,” I texted my friend, Chuck, as Anderson Cooper filled in the final fifteen minutes of the debate entertaining responses to his nonsense question.
— “The last question is about friendship WTF”
“John McCain was my friend…hey, you, look up from your phone and listen to me. From, Senator Amy Klobuchar,” I added mockingly.
— “…Spot on.”
In the midst of impeachment proceedings, and in a primary race with a newly crowned frontrunner in Elizabeth Warren (and energetic reactions to it from both the moderates on stage and from Wall Street), I thought that the last question posed to the candidates at the most recent debate was weird. Asking them to opine on the budding Ellen and George W. friendship, or to genuflect to the 2008 GOP nominee, rather than offer details about their policy proposals, for example, on their strategies to mitigate the expected damages of climate change, seemed to me to be a misdeed, and an unnecessary misdirection of the nation’s attention as it was focused on this debate stage, at least partially.
Then, I thought of what my own unlikely friend would have thought about this all: the question from Anderson Cooper, this raucous and callous presidency, and the Democratic primary contest for 2020.
Part II: Meeting Carol
I met Carol in West Orange, New Jersey as my great aunt waned in health in her retirement home during my senior year of high school late in 2006 and early in 2007.
My friendship to Mrs. P, or Carol, as she would press me to call her, began as a sort of legacy connection, an inheritance from the relationships she and her husband, Sid, had with my grandparents, Charles and Olivia, and with my great aunt, ‘Ruthy,’ whom was a caretaker to Carol when Carol was a child.
Carol, to me, was a curious and fascinating figure. A mentally acute octogenarian, who moved around a room with a lot of frenetic energy and a slight bent towards the ground, she engaged politics and their daily developments with fervor in contrast to the staid discussions of political history in high school. While neither of my grandparents was able to attend or complete college for themselves, and simply wanted to provide for their children and grandchildren the chance to figure it out for themselves, she was a proud University of Chicago alumna, whom offered advice on school choices, and wondered why schools like the University of Chicago and Georgetown were not on my radar.
I would come to find she was far more progressive, in some senses, than I expected, but also demonstrated, of course, some generational differences, seen most starkly in issues of culture. We spoke quite often about which cultural terms were most in dispute in the zeitgeist, and which ideas and terms were destined for retirement. We spoke about changing sexual mores, and of the promise of a (symbolic) improvement in race relations with a potential African American president. It was Carol who introduced me to liberal touchstones, like The New York Times and The New Yorker, and who first entertained my opinion on the Democratic Party’s presidential contest of 2008, which was the first where I would cast a vote. She trusted newspapers more than any other source. And, she asked me about my political opinions more than anyone had previously, including my teachers.
She’d move through my great aunt’s room, replacing dead plants with ones she brought, safeguarding Ruth’s jewelry, and insisting that the medical aides to be more attentive, while musing over the news of the day, and asking me my opinions on it all.
“This Obama guy, do you think he has a chance?”
“But, the Clintons are so powerful and Hillary has all the establishment support.”
“I think he has a shot, because he is inspiring a lot of young people like me who never would have been interested in politics.”
She was inspired too, but very much more wary.
We’d continue to talk about politics in 2007 in our coordinated visits as my great aunt’s health ailed slowly, and she’d inquire more about the life as a high school student in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, and the decisions I was making, including plans to attend college in Pennsylvania with hopes to pursue medical school subsequently.
Part III: Contrasts in an Unlikely Friendship
Early in my freshman year of college my great aunt died, but my friendship to Carol seemed more relevant than ever in her absence. I suppose we both wished to honor my great aunt by continuing the bonds of our affection across our families.
My first year of college was quite instrumental, reflecting backwards on it, particularly, for my decision to pursue studies in politics and philosophy, and in abandoning my plans to become a physician like her husband had been. She reflected on visiting him, and his past at Georgetown Medical School, as he too, now, ailed in health.
After her husband died, I would make visiting Carol a priority during my seasonal visits home from college at Lehigh University. I’d drive over to her house, park my small, green-blue Ford Escort in the driveway along the snow-covered lawn, and make myself inside for a cup of tea, and long hours of conversation, before I’d motion my head to the closet and the door, leaving always with stated promises to return soon.
And, I kept those promises as best I could. I’d leave her my phone number on a pad that she kept on her refrigerator, and she’d call to see if I was available to accompany her to gather things she needed for the house. Sometimes, when I obliged, we’d jump into my car, and make two stops to local grocery chains.
We had to have seemed like the oddest of couples as we slowly perused the store aisles, but I figured our outings were no different than what I would offer to each of my own grandparents looking to escape the quiet of their living rooms. I’d leave it passersby to sort out their misgivings towards the specter of a cross-generational friendship.
“This is my friend,” she’d say, and whoever she was talking to would stare confusingly, until returning to their inquiry on how she was holding up now as a widow.
Then, during my junior year of college, I made the decision to get away from what was a very tense social environment to explore somewhere I’d never been, Argentina, despite knowing that I spoke little of the host language, and had not known much about the country prior to asking some classmates from the region about their thoughts.
The whole idea sounded ludicrous to her. Why not decide to study in Europe?
“I could always go to Spain or Italy,” I’d say, “but the opportunity to live for an entire semester in South America would not likely come back around.”
So, I left for a semester abroad, and called her from Skype when I could, just as I would my parents and grandparents, which I know she greatly appreciated.
Eventually, I would return home, finish college, and begin teaching until deciding to pursue graduate studies in public policy and international development at Georgetown.
“Georgetown, really?” she delighted.
“Yes, through a program where I’d complete coursework in Buenos Aires, Argentina.”
She still had not quite understood how such a program could exist, nor what my draw to keep leaving the country for Argentina was, this time for two and a half years.
Moving further into my twenties, I grew more independence, traveling to places like Vietnam and South Africa, and then traveling to places where she had originally suggested I get to know like Italy and Spain.
After finishing my graduate coursework in Buenos Aires, I would take a job at City Hall in New York City as a very junior project manager, but she was now ailing too, due to her progressing Alzheimer’s disease.
My communication with Carol slowed and then slopped.
And, then, after a long period of time in the care of her loved ones, she died, exactly a year and a day before the last Democratic Debate.
I was not able to travel to her memorial service, because I had just crashed back home having quit my job and having turned down a potential offer of employment in order to finish long delayed thesis writing requirements for graduation. I was ashamed of my inability to be there with her family and friends to remember and memorialize our friendship then, and I wondered if she’d be disappointed about any of this.
The truth is that when someone dies, and your chances to see them are gone, that some of us move into remembrance and recalling all those last instances when you did visit, call, and converse. Oddly, the last question of the previous Democratic debate lent clarity and some recognition of the role relationships can play in shaping us, our travels, and even in some of our political awakenings. And, it made me think of all those instances when our friendship was alive with new experience.
So, I guess, I have Anderson’s weird question to thank for prompting me to reflect thoroughly on my offbeat, and yet important, relationship to my friend Carol.
I wonder what she’d think of this democratic primary field, about the number of women running, about the racial diversity, about the possible interference by both foreign entities and the President of the United States in the past and upcoming elections, and the relative lack of a frontrunner. What would she think of Melania’s job as First Lady, and what about the president’s tweeting? What would she think of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming compared to her husband’s earlier Dreams From My Father, which we had both read?
Indeed, I’d like to discuss all of these things with her and more, of course, but, I am ultimately much more grateful for our long history of reflecting on developments from a more hopeful span of presidential contests.