Feeling like a guilty grave robber ransacking a pharaoh's tomb, I cleaned out my father's sock drawer on Sunday. In a cardboard box hidden in a back corner, among shoelaces and old empty wallets, random credit card receipts and a pair of beard-trimming scissors, I found, first, my own business card proclaiming me a writer for Salon, and then, something I'd never seen before, an artifact precious beyond measure, my father's press credential from National Review magazine, complete with an embossed company seal carbon-dating it to the year 1959.
The publisher and editors of National Review will appreciate any courtesies extended to the Bearer, John Leonard, an accredited representative of this magazine.
For my family, smiles were in short supply this past weekend, but any reminder that my dad, whose left-liberal politics were as fierce, passionate, eloquent and unyielding as those of anyone I have ever known, started his career as a professional writer at National Review is always worth a chortle, or at least a bemused grin. William Buckley may have given us Ronald Reagan as president, but I can almost forgive him, because he also launched my dad into the world of letters.
For 50 years my father kept that card squirreled away, and for 50 years, right up until the last weeks before he died, he kept writing. Writers write, he told me, when I was pondering my own career choices as a wayward youth. Writers write. If you don't have a passion for the act of writing, if you don't resonate to the chimes of words banging about in your head or on the page, you might as well not bother. In his opinion.
All this past weekend, in the shower, on airplanes, watching college football with my sister (my father was a fan), making small talk with New Yorkers come to honor his memory, that invocation, writers write, has tolled in my own head. The clangor intimidates. As has been noted many times in the outburst of obituaries and memorials that my father's death incited, my father treated words as if they were gems in the hands of a crazed master jeweler. Every noun, verb and semicolon fit into place with absolute precision and sparkled immaculately in the light, but there were so many and they were all so excited! A baroque profusion; a tsunami without a ripple gone awry; a memory palace and a labyrinth.
My whole career as a writer, I have steered away from such depths. My father, the man who read and watched and knew everything, was a critic; so I would be a reporter. He would build cathedrals with a scalpel and a chisel; so I would spew my words with a fire hose, slapping up blog post constructions destined to be blown away by the next frail breeze. His every sentence would be a masterpiece; as for me, on occasion, a phrase or two that rang true would pop from my keyboard, I would appreciate it in passing, and think to myself: My father might like that one. But the pause would not last long, for another sentence, another post, another observation waited impatiently to be born.
More than anything, I grieve that my father will never read another of my words, no matter how sloppy, no matter how ill-considered.
But writers write.
Somehow, he made time for all my words, even the clunkers. The most recent proof of this came three weeks before he died, while I was visiting with him in New York. I spent the week blogging about the economy and the weekend taking a turn manning Salon's War Room battle deck. On that weekend, while he watched football with a book on his lap, I sat at the other end of the couch and tapped madly at my keyboard, reporting to Salon's readers the latest polling minutiae and fundraising numbers, and the big news of the weekend, Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama. Mere moments after I published, he would reach for his own laptop, to read what I had just written.
It was both silly and wonderful -- it's not as if there was anything to be learned from my posts that he didn't already know. I told him everything as it happened, and we were sitting 3 feet apart!
But he still had to devour every word.
We both knew that he was dying, but we distracted ourselves from the reality of his growing weakness by marveling at the campaign of Barack Obama. It seemed to contradict everything we had both grown up to learn about what was possible in the United States. Over the course of his entire life, my father had never been able to shake off the crushing disappointment he had experienced as a 13-year-old when Adlai Stevenson lost the presidential election of 1952 to Dwight D. Eisenhower. He never tired of telling me how moved he had been by Stevenson's concession speech, when the great orator quoted Abraham Lincoln's "It hurts too much to laugh, but I'm too old to cry." If I had a nickel for every time my father repeated that chestnut, I would not be worrying about what the financial crisis has done to my 401K.
My father was always a supporter of underdogs and lost causes, progressive fantasies and improbable visions of a more just world. But even as he expected to be disappointed more often than satisfied, that did not justify cynicism or absolve one from the responsibility to be angry at injustice. Above all, one had an obligation to participate in the democratic process. My father was a not a religious man, but voting was his sacrament. If there was a political corollary to the credo "writers write" it would be "voters vote." In every election, from dogcatcher to president.
As the political campaign of 2008 came to a close, my father and I, like so many Americans, were dazzled by the possibility that this time around we might not be disappointed, that someone we respected, for both his politics and his words, someone whom we'd both shortly vote for, might actually win, that a different vision of America than the one we had become accustomed to might be ratified. Hey, if the Red Sox could win a World Series ...
On the last Saturday I shared with my father, a new nurse came to the house to drain fluid from his lungs through a catheter that had recently been installed in his side. Her name was Tisha, and she was the kind of woman who instantly fills a room with her energy and sparkle: She was engaged, caring, fully present. Somehow, even as she went about her work, the three of us left behind the medical exigencies of the moment and started talking about Barack Obama. After she whirled out of the house, we both marveled at her passage. My dad made a point of noting how her visit had been entirely paid for by Medicare, and declared that everyone, of any age, deserved such fantastic care.
On Sunday, around noon, I opened the front door to let her come bustling through. She was in a state of some agitation. She told me that she'd been hurrying through all her morning patients, because someone had told her that Colin Powell had said something about Barack Obama. "I knew that you guys would know what it was," she blurted.
She was correct. In fact, I had just embedded the video of Powell's "Meet the Press" endorsement in a Salon War Room post, and my father and I were delighted to watch it again with Tisha. Neither my father nor I carry much of a brief for Powell -- he's a slick politician who clearly had figured out which way the wind was blowing. But to hear him make the case for Obama so eloquently, to hear him ask, "What's wrong with being a Muslim in America?" and to watch him say these things in the company of an African-American nurse and total stranger was unspeakably moving.
Tisha stayed for half an hour. She told us of her young son, and how she was going to take him to the voting booth with her. She expressed amazement at the attitudes of some of her friends, one of whom had told her that he was not going to vote. Ridiculous! Her mother, Tisha said, had laid down the law on voting -- it was a right and a responsibility that could not be shirked.
As she told us about her mother I glanced at my father, who was quietly taking it all in. His breathing was troubled and speaking took extra effort. But he didn't need to say anything, nor did I need to do anything more than grin at him. There was a lightness about his eyes. He had dragged me into the voting booth long before I could exercise my own prerogative of citizenship. The magic of the ballot box was my father's milk for me. I could tell that Tisha's rush of words was a balm and a benediction.
I am not too old to cry and it still hurts too much to laugh, but my father voted for Barack Obama and he knew before he died that the senator from Illinois would be the next president of the United States. And in this knowledge, he can never be disappointed.