There have been a few times in my life when I have felt completely disconnected from the rest of America - a man without a country. It's not that I have changed (although I certainly have). At those times America has moved away from me. I myself am the steady gauge by which I measure its departure.
It happened first in the 1980s. As I've written on this blog before, I grew up believing in the ability of our country to rise against great evil and put it right. I saw that happen during the Civil Rights movement, which defines my moral core to this day. The 60s were a blessed time to come of age, but a cursed one as well: blessed because the potential seemed limitless; cursed because those of us who grew up on that rich food were bound to be disappointed.
And disappointed I was by the ongoing war in Vietnam, which defined my high school years and ended as I began college. Disappointed, too, by the election of Richard Nixon as president in 1968, and by his re-election four years later. Still, though, I believed in America, and when Watergate broke it seemed like vindication. America, I told myself, was good at heart, and right would eventually win out. The proof of this was that I knew somebody as extreme as Ronald Reagan could never be elected president. It was simply inconceivable in the America of my youth, which made mistakes but knew how to back off from them and reaffirm its true self. The California cowboy made the news from time to time, but he did so as an outside voice - one that was ludicrously beyond the mainstream, and would remain so forever. Such was my faith.
When Reagan was elected I thought my world had ended. For most of the 80s I seemed to be living in a parallel reality that mocked the country in which I had been born. I could barely stand to turn on the news, because I knew I was likely to be confronted by the "great communicator," who always seemed to me to be delivering bad throwaway movie lines that showed only a minimal understanding of reality. It is my firm belief that Reagan's reckless brinksmanship with the Soviet Union prolonged its life - that communism would have collapsed much sooner without the excuse that confronting Reagan and the US provided. Then there was Reagan's determination to destroy everything else I had come to regard as good about America. Several times in the 80s I simply broke down and wept at what I saw happening in the country I still loved, but that had so clearly rejected me.
As soon as Reagan was out of the White House, I immediately felt some degree of normalcy return. Bush I wasn't my favorite president, but he wasn't an idiot either, and I took considerable consolation in that. Clinton, too, had his faults, but I recognized the country under his leadership.
Then, of course, came Bush II, and things once again went off the tracks. It wasn't so much his "election" by the Supreme Court, in defiance of the popular vote, that convinced me that my country was once again gone. It was the leadup to the Iraq War, in which I could see clearly that we were embarking on a fool's mission that would cause incalculable human misery. I knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and I thought it should be clear as well to anybody who was paying attention. Late 2002 and early 2003 were probably the loneliest period in my life. There was virtually nobody who seemed to agree with me, and I watched the country skating into insanity with a different kind of detachment than I had known in the 80s. There were no more fits of weeping, but there was intense prayer and desperate isolation. The country had deserted me again.
Then Barack Obama was elected and, against all odds, he managed to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress. Yes, it was a desperate compromise, but I still believe it was the most important legislation passed by Congress since the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The fact that it had finally been approved made up for an awful lot, and even consoled me during the Tea Party rout of 2010. The Republicans might have won back Congress - and in a darker, more extremist incarnation than I had ever seen before - but universal health care was here to stay.
Anybody who has followed my writing here knows why this is so important to me. My late wife Barbara, who died last December, was a long-term cancer survivor. She was fortunate enough to be married to me and thus to have insurance that paid for the truly extraordinary medical expenses she ran up during the last decade of her life. If that life had gone a bit differently, she could have been denied coverage because of a "pre-existing condition," which is a brutal way of saying that she had survived a disease that was supposed to have killed her, and no insurance company would voluntarily take her on. The fact that people like her have been routinely denied access to the care they need is the kind of situation that simply should not exist in a civilized country. No other advanced country in the world would allow it. And the US had finally caught up.
If there was ever a silver lining for me to Barbara's sudden and premature death last year, it was my knowledge that under the new law, nobody like her would ever be turned down for insurance again. That thought has kept me going during some very difficult moments.
Thus, I am awaiting Thursday's announcement of the Supreme Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act with genuine dread. I fully expect the same partisan judicial activism that put Bush II in office and defined money as speech to undo this vital, desperately needed legislation and return us to a state of savage indifference to our fellow citizens. I will be pleasantly surprised if that doesn't happen. If it does happen, though, I will feel personally injured, since the memory of my late wife will have been disrespected in clear, cold terms. I hope I don't find out on Thursday morning that the country has once again deserted me, but I'm bracing for the worst. It hurts.