From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, Michael Estrin’s father taught him that patriotism transcends partisanship….
It was true. Nearly all of our family “vacations” revolved around Dad’s shows. As we got older, winter in D.C. seemed both normal and, depending on the political climate, cool. But to Allison and me, Reagan stunk. Our elementary school in Los Angeles had bucked the national trend by voting overwhelmingly for Walter Mondale in a mock election.
“I want you two to see history,” Dad explained. “Not many kids get an opportunity like this.”
Ostensibly, we signed on to witness the peaceful transfer of power. But the real draw for Allison and me was the fact that we’d be able to skip the first two weeks of the spring semester.
Mom schlepped us to one historic site after the next. We visited Capitol Hill, where Mom explained the virtue of checks and balances, and we took note of the fact that Congress had an amazing vacation schedule. At the White House, Mom explained that anyone could be President, even an actor. Then Allison asked if an actress could do the job, and our tour guide laughed. We spent days exploring the Smithsonian museums, where we learned about America’s greatest triumphs and darkest moments. At the Air & Space Museum, we marveled at the fact that our mother was older than the rocket that first took men to the moon. At The National Museum For American History, Allison argued with a grown man over whether Howdy Doody was superior to Kermit the Frog….
Elections in America last longer than they used to when Allison and I were kids. More than a year before the primaries, cable news began ginning up the reality television spectacle that will have its series finale at noon on January 20, 2017. The following day, I suspect, America will be cast in a spinoff series in which a man who triumphed as an unscripted celebrity will follow in the footsteps of a President who was first famous for delivering his lines. Or at least, that’s how it looks to the kids of the man who did the sound for the inaugurations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Thanks to our dad, we witnessed the peaceful transfer of power. Thanks to our mom – and a police officer – we came to understand what is so special about our system of government.
“America is an idea,” the police officer explained. “It’s not perfect, but it works because we all pitch in and we all believe in the rule of law.”
The 2016 election hit Allison and me hard, in ways both personal and political. Dad died a few months before the first primary. We watched, helpless, as a toxic campaign barreled out of control and a national nightmare steamrolled through our grief.
After the last presidential debate – a gig Dad had done since 1988 – in October, Allison changed her email signature to read “sent from a nasty woman.” I turned to books like Eric Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. I wanted to know more about the rise of fascism, not because I believed, as many have claimed, that Trump is like Hitler, but because I wanted to know how a seemingly decent nation could fall for evil. Mostly, however, Allison and I assured ourselves that a man like Trump couldn’t be President because he just didn’t have the dignity and decency of Republicans and Democrats our father had worked for.
Then Donald Trump won.
The day after the election, my wife Christina was so depressed she put up our Christmas tree. “I need some joy right now,” she said.
My thoughts turned to the holidays and, quite naturally, to Washington, D.C. For days, I agonized over this hypothetical: if Dad were alive, would he do Trump’s inauguration? On the one hand, Dad loathed men who trade in hate. On the other hand, Dad always put his job above politics; to him, the sound of the President’s voice was as important as the oath the incoming President took to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
I couldn’t bring myself to say it, not even to Allison, but a part of me was glad that Dad was dead. It was the part of me that wouldn’t have been able to stomach our father working for Trump, and the part of me that knew I could never have expected Dad to skip history.
Just before Thanksgiving, around the time our dad would have been in Washington, D.C. trying to secure his eighth inauguration, Allison called.
“I’m going to the march in Washington,” she said. “Will you and Christina come?”
A thought occurred to me, one that was both beautiful and frightening. On January 21, 2017, Donald J. Trump will be a federal employee. That makes me and 300-million-plus Americans his boss.
In a democracy, the people are supposed to have a say. In practice, the people who show up are most likely to be heard.
“We’re going to D.C.,” I explained to Mom, “because I want to tell our President what I expect of him.”
Donald Trump’s inauguration will be our fifth D.C. vacation, but our first without our parents. This time, instead of witnessing history, Allison and I intend to help make it. We will march, something we’ve never done as a family. But to keep up a family tradition, we’ll also do some sightseeing, because as Mom reminded me, there’s a new Smithsonian dedicated to African American history, and it’s supposed to be fantastic.
“You better not get us into trouble,” I teased Allison.
“Me? You started it!”