(Host) Commentator Philip Baruth isn’t usually superstitious, but on election night 2000, for several really good reasons, he was distracted briefly – a circumstance he will never, ever allow to happen again.
(Baruth) When you have a second kid, it’s suddenly crucially important that everyone in the house Do Their Job. If my wife or my daughter or I don’t each do our jobs these days, chaos mounts so quickly that it overwhelms the whole domestic operation.
And so on the night of the Third Presidential debate my wife was upstairs nursing our six-week-old, because right now that’s her main job; my daughter Gwendolyn was asleep upstairs, because that’s her job – to get enough sleep and get up ready for kindergarten. My job was to stand in the kitchen, about two paces from the radio, and subtly influence the last Presidential debate by shouting and waving my arms.
This isn’t a new job for me. I’ve been at it now for a year and a half, keeping a neurotic eye on this election. And for good reason: on election night 2000, I was at a victory party at the Sheraton with about 1,000 other Democrats, and when Al Gore took Florida, I raced home to tell my wife. But when I opened the back door, Annika had this horrible look on her face. She told me that Peter Jennings had taken Florida out of Gore’s column, and within a month Bush was president-elect. I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that Bush was only able to squeak out that election because I, personally, took my eye off the ball. I left the Sheraton, and that 10-minute news-free interval was enough.
I let my candidate down and all the ensuing turmoil was my fault.
And so this time around, I can’t stop watching news, reading it, surfing it. And midway through that last debate, I suddenly felt like I just couldn’t go on any more. I didn’t have the stamina. How long, Lord, I thought, how long can this horrible low-rent election continue?
But even though I woke up in the morning feeling hollow, something brilliant happened, as it does every morning now: Kindergarten. Gwendolyn’s first six weeks of kindergarten have coincided with the home-stretch of the Presidential election, and the coincidence has saved my sanity. Of course, the first week at Flynn Elementary was tough – for me, I mean. The kids have to line up outside the school each morning, and file in together. Since Gwendolyn didn’t know anyone, since none of the kids knew anyone, they all stood up against the brick wall like a grim little police line-up, each of them very much alone. But the people at Flynn know what they’re doing, believe me: in a week Gwendolyn knew all the kids in her class, knew their favorite foods and what countries some of their parents left to bring them to America.
Now when we pull up at school, she leaps from the car and runs to that same brick wall not because she has to but because that’s where her best friends are standing. And then all the little girls throw down their Disney Princess backpacks and give each other these back-crushing hugs. It’s a beautiful thing.
Before I leave, I always tell Gwendolyn that I’m proud of her, for doing her job, for pulling her weight. And that little jolt of kindergarten energy makes it possible for me to get back in the car and continue doing my job: monitoring the news every second of the way to work and shouting and waving my arms at the radio as needed.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.