The Agony and the Ecstasy

My open heart surgery was originally scheduled for 7:30 a.m., November 9—the morning after the election—but a couple of weeks before, I managed to switch it to a day later. Why take the chance that someone vital in the operating room had been up all night watching the returns—or, as it turned out, would be in the midst of a psychic meltdown over the results?

I, of course, had my own concerns on that score. Knowing that the frenzied celebrations following Hillary’s expected smashing of “the highest, hardest glass ceiling” might compromise my immune system—and, indeed, sap my very will to live—I went to bed election night without watching the returns, planning to go under the knife having in the interim avoided exposure to any news source or individual that might deliver the anticipated gruesome news.

Farfetched as this may sound, it seemed entirely doable, since by then I’d already had plenty of practice avoiding harsh reality. A reluctant Trump supporter, continually disheartened by my candidate’s outbursts, after his midsummer attack on the father of the Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, I went to ground and stopped following the news entirely.

Again, this was not altogether virgin territory, since during the Obama years, I, like so many others, had grown accustomed to immediately hitting the remote at the sight of the president or any of his key toadies. (In our home, the primary safe space was The Big Bang Theory—always available somewhere on the dial—while others we know retreated to locales as varied as the Food Network, the American Heroes Channel, American Pickers, and ID, the murder channel.)

But this was an entirely new level of denial. Not only did I cease reading the papers and going online, I made a jerk of myself by walking away from conversations that seemed to be veering toward current events. Only months afterward would I learn that some Olympic swimmer’s juvenile stunt had provoked an international incident or that Edward Albee was dead; and though it did penetrate my fortress of solitude that Trump had been caught saying ghastly things (and that this was evidently the last nail in his coffin), I didn’t find out what those things were until I heard them quoted in a speech two weeks before the election. To this day, I’ve never seen the video.

I filled the huge void this left in my life with books. A politics junkie, never much for fiction, I decided this was my chance to finally read War and Peace. But when the elegant, small-type translation proved even longer than expected, with tissue-thin pages, I quickly moved on to an abridged, simplified book club edition from the forties; then gave up entirely. Instead, I read the autobiography of the guy who killed Rasputin, then a biography of J. D. Salinger; which led me, looking to get more info on Salinger’s old flame Oona O’Neill, to a memoir by Oona’s girlhood pal Carol Matthau, Walter’s wife; which somehow put me onto other books by relatives of famous people: one by Irving Berlin’s daughter, another by Nora Ephron’s father.

I’d just picked up My Dad, the Babe when my wife rescued me from this madness. When I asked one late October afternoon why she was looking so unaccountably pleased, she said: “Something big has happened.” She paused, teasingly. “Do you want to hear?”

“All right,” I grudgingly agreed.

“Comey’s reopened the investigation on Hillary’s emails! And there’s an Anthony Weiner connection!”

Just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in again.

Not, as the big day neared, that there seemed much reason for hope—until a friend roused us from sleep at around 11 that night shrieking we had to turn on the TV. In seconds, my hurting heart was soaring.

Thirty-five hours later, before I’d even had the chance to gulp down a full measure of joy and schadenfreude, I was on the operating table.

Ah, but was there ever a better time to be stuck in a hospital room, with a TV for company, than in the days that followed? There they were, hour after hour, the still disbelieving and distraught journalists struggling to make sense of it. I’d never before watched MSNBC for more than 30 seconds, but now I was nightly trying to guess who’d be angrier or more bitter, Maddow or O’Donnell. And then there were Joy and Whoopi on The View. Talk about bliss!

The one hitch was that, under the circumstances, I had to keep it to myself. If, as Ronald Reagan famously joked to his surgeon, “I hope you’re a Republican,” I could be pretty sure most of those tending to me in a New York hospital were anything but; and how hard would it have been, really, as I lay there helpless, for some unregenerate Hillary fan of an orderly to slip one of those untraceable killer drugs into my medicine port? More than once, hearing approaching footfalls, I quickly switched to The Price Is Right or Jay Leno’s Garage.

In fact, there was only one time anyone engaged me on the election: an extremely competent and friendly Filipina night nurse. One late evening, as she lingered to chat after taking blood, we got to talking about our respective experiences in Paris, but then she unexpectedly veered onto Trump. I said nothing as she went on about the vileness of the man and his followers and was relieved when she said she had to tend to other patients.

“By the way,” she said, by way of parting conversation, “what do you do?”

“Me?” I said, caught short. “Uh, I’m a writer, actually.”

“Really? What do you write?”

“Well, you know, a bit of everything,” I said vaguely, “a little fiction, some nonfiction.” Not to mention, especially lately, lots of stuff that would mark me in her mind as a Deplorable, if not an out-and-proud Nazi.

“That’s really interesting!”—and there was not the slightest doubt she’d soon be googling me.

“But, well, you know,” I called after, “there are actually a bunch of writers with the same name!”

Harry Stein is a contributing editor to City Journal and the author of No Matter What . . . They’ll Call This Book Racist and the comic novel Will Tripp, Pissed-Off Attorney-at-Law.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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