My Summer of George
THANK YOU FOR CALLING the White House Comment Line. If you are calling from a touch-tone phone, please press one. If you would like to leave a message for the president, please press one. I press one. I want to talk to the president. I know, of course, that I won’t speak to George directly, but that’s how I think of my call: talking to George. Though he’s only been in office a few months, there’s already so much I need to say to him.
I probably wouldn’t have called except for my phone company. My long-distance service offers free “citizen” calls to political leaders every Monday. I’ve had the service for years but never made a citizen call until I read in the information accompanying my phone bill — geek that I am — that the free time had been doubled because the president was keeping people on hold for gobs of time. That pissed me off. Raising the limit of arsenic in drinking water, giving tax-payer money to religious groups to perform social services, drilling for oil on pristine public lands: par for the course. But keeping the citizenry on hold? Who did he think he was? I made a pact with myself to call him all summer long. He wouldn’t scare me off. I would hold and hold.
So I’m on hold. No music. (Thank heaven, because I imagine George’s hold music would be twangy, yet relentlessly upbeat, cattle-prodding the listener into compliance with a few simple chords of manufactured cheer.) I use the silence to compose myself. Many times I’ve written political letters, letters to the editor, senators, the Forest Service. Each November, I wear my “I voted” sticker with pride. Citizen is a comfortable role for me. But I’ve never before called the president, and I find that I’m nervous in a bizarrely first-datey sort of way. What if I don’t know what to say?
After a short time, a woman with a comfortably worn Southern voice answers the line. I wonder if she’ll want my name and address, but she only asks which state I’m calling from. Instantly, a great sense of freedom floods me: I’m just an anonymous citizen from Arizona. Finding an earnest tone, I tell her that I think the president’s energy policy is going in exactly the wrong direction, and recommend that he shift from an emphasis on production to one on conservation. She promises to “pass that on,” her accent stretching out the word “on” to nearly three syllables.
The voice of the White House Comment Line Volunteer Operator is homey and welcoming. We have both played our roles well, as participants in this great democracy. My nervousness subsides. I will certainly call again.
Don’t worry, I see the irony. Me, criticizing George’s energy policy from my home in Tucson, in the middle of the Sonoran desert, where I simply wouldn’t survive without air conditioning; where I drive everywhere because the city sprawls, public transport’s a nightmare, and I’m too lazy to suss out the bus schedules; and where my water comes in part from a subsiding aquifer and in part from the poor strangled Colorado River. The nice thing about being an anonymous citizen, expressing your opinion? Nobody gets to call you a hypocrite.
TUSCON, SUMMER: It’s cracking 100 every day. Opening the door, I face a wall of heat that feels less like temperature than texture. Warmth rises off the cat’s black fur when he comes inside. Our garden has been gangbusters since February; now the tomatoes, overtaxed by heat, rot on the vine. There are no shadows. The sun fills every space with cruel light, even the space between my eyes. This summer the monsoon rains have been spotty, thwarted, moody, blowing up dust and leaving behind vertical walls of thermals towering into impotent clouds. It’s my third Arizona summer, and I’ve learned that I need pleasure projects, distractions to last until the sun shrinks back in autumn and I can breathe again.
Luckily, my pleasures are pretty harmless. In May I decided I would read like a kid again, ignoring the summer’s important books to indulge myself in great literary orgies under the air conditioning vent. I gobbled the Harry Potter series in a week; I’ve knocked back medieval histories and mystical thrillers set in the Anglican Church.
Exercise is another project. It’s far too hot to walk, so in place of my usual suppertime strolls, in early June I set my VCR to tape an exercise show every morning. Come evening, I work out under the guidance of the coifed blond exercise guru my husband calls Little Susie Perfect. Sometimes I mute the sound to avoid her small collection of mantras: Your spine is your lifeline. If you don’t squeeze it (your butt), nobody else will! If you rest, you rust! Little Susie hosts her shows from various outdoor resorts. She suggests that the viewer pretend to be with her in those lovely places. Even as I tune out her voice, my mind accompanies her to the edge of gentle surf as she stretches and squats before bowers of orchids.
And now, as my final pleasure project of the summer, I’m calling George.
JULY 2: I woke with terrible allergies, my head full of a rising tide. Allergies are new for me, part of my transformation from a Northerner into an Arizonan. Still working on getting used to the heat: I nearly choke on my coffee when I hear it will be 113 in Phoenix today. (I listen to Phoenix public radio, at least partly, for the satisfaction of not being in giant Phoenix. Everything in Arizona’s biggest city is just that much more — faster, hotter, crazier. The moreness I hear about each morning as I listen to news reports seems to make my life in relatively sleepy Tucson a bit more manageable.)
One hundred and thirteen: all that thermal energy should be good for something, and it is. Last week, Arizona Governor Jane Hull gave George’s Environmental Protection Agency director, Christine Todd Whitman, a tour of an experimental solar-power plant. Administrator Whitman sold the visit to the media as evidence of the president’s support for renewable energy. On the local news I saw a clip of the two women strolling among the solar panels. They looked lost in a strange forest of mirrors. They looked bored out of their minds.
I don’t ring George in the morning as planned. A surprise call from an old friend makes me late for work as it is, so I rush home at lunch and dial Washington as I prepare my salad. I’m on hold long enough to make and eat my lunch. Your call is important to the president. We appreciate your patience. The man who answers sounds like a senior; he’s a bit hard of hearing and I have to yell, repeating key words and phrases: “Arizona!” and “Nuclear is not clean energy!” Without any prompting, he promises to pass my message on to both the president and the vice president. I feel I’ve gotten a glimpse into the secret White House power dynamics I suspected all along.
JULY 9: Last week it reached 116 in Phoenix, 111 in Tucson. George has been visiting the monuments in D.C. to reconnect with the little people, who have been finding him elusive, according to the pollsters. This week, Iraq threatens to pump and sell oil again in an unrestrained way, screw the sanctions first imposed by Daddy Bush. Crude prices plunge. So much for the summer of three-dollar gasoline I’d been hoping would scare us all into conservation.
Before I call George, I ring up my dental insurance company with what I hope is a quick question. I hold for a long time. When I finally reach somebody — a girl, already weary at this hour, at this stage of her young adulthood — I ask if our “per person” limit applies to both my husband and me? Do we get a thousand dollars total or a thousand dollars total each? The meaning of “per person” should be obvious, but sometimes, in the surreal logic of insurance bureaucracy, I’m treated not as a separate human but as part of Tom’s “person.” The girl and I dance around the question for a few minutes. She talks over me, repeating the same incomprehensible non-answer in an exasperated tone. Finally, though I recognize that she’s probably an underpaid nineteen year old who gets no dental care herself, I chastise her for her failure to listen. Later I wince at my own loss of cool, but I’m not at my best in the role of disgruntled customer. The dental girl says, “I’m sorry, ma’am, I was only trying to explain,” which sounds like an apology, but trust me, was not.
Because of this dental wrangling, I rush my call in to George. While I’m dialing and grabbing my purse and keys to fly out the door as soon as I’m done, I hear the traffic report. I’m warned to watch out for loose screws rolling around the roads near Arizona State University. Last week, there was an accident involving Styrofoam; the white stuff swirled over the hot tarmac, creating a ground blizzard. Through this artificial snow drove the little people with whom George wants to connect. People like the prematurely cynical girl who represents my dental insurance company. People like me.
A lady with an old-fashioned, highbrow Southern accent answers. I expect her to call me “dear.” When I’ve said my piece, she thanks me for my comment requesting that the president stop obstructing the McCain-Edwards-Kennedy Patients’ Bill of Rights. Not that said bill would have helped me this morning, but I feel better, as if I’d complained to the chippy dental girl’s boss. Which, in a way, I did.
JULY 16: A truck full of river rocks has experienced a rollover accident. (It’s “a rock ‘n roll situation,” the radio announcer quips.) George’s line is busy. While I wait to call back, I consider my options. Should I critique his plan to abandon the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty? His vice president’s road trip to garner support for his administration’s strip-mine-it, split-that-atom energy policy? His desire to hand over approval for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge like a plate of barbecue grilled extra special for his oil-biz cronies?
A woman answers, saying, “Good morning. I think this is on?” I try to ease her through this process, now that I’m a veteran. I’m surprised to hear a comment about the missile treaty pop out; I had settled in my mind on drilling in the refuge. The operator interrupts, realizing she’s off script, and asks where I’m calling from. When I continue, explaining my objections to George’s plan to set the treaty aside unilaterally, she interrupts again.
“You support anti-ballistic missiles. . . ” Her voice trails off.
“I support the treaty,” I say, “Not the missiles!” And we both laugh. When I ring off, I’m still not sure she’s got it, but it’s my most human encounter yet.
JULY 17: I’m scared of Antarctica. Last night my semi-conscious mind, trying to compose my next message to George, swirled around one of my biggest fears, a kind of bogey, global warming. Half-dreamed images of penguins swimming exhaustedly toward shrinking patches of melting ice made me feel as I did in elementary school when I first heard about our heating world. A teacher, himself hitting a wall of middle-aged hopelessness, told us gleefully how there’d be no more fossil fuel but that was okay because we’ll all be fried by 1999. For good measure he also explained that there’s no escape, that you can find PCBs in seals, polar bears, the milk of Inuit mothers. That’s when I first began to wonder: If we’re that screwed up, and one bad thing connects so easily to another (here I saw a great toxic swirl of pesticides and cow farts and exhaust clouding over the Earth), then what’s the point?
Sometimes, I still feel that way. For me, global warming is both a real scientific, economic, and political issue and a sort of dark night of the soul. Driving Tucson’s sizzling roads, I see islands sinking into rising seas. And how much hotter can this desert where I live get before humans can no longer survive here? So far, I don’t want to mention my fears to George. He’s not really a dark-night-of-the-soul kind of guy.
JULY 22: George is interviewed on a golf cart. He’s with his dad. They’re wearing matching baseball caps that say “41” and “43” (for forty-first and forty-third presidency) respectively. George Sr.’s in the driver’s seat. From off screen, a reporter questions W. about our relationship with Russia. “The Russians want the same things we do,” he says. As he answers questions, he picks at something — goose crap? — stuck to the bottom of his golf shoe. I don’t think he’s listening.
JULY 23: A couple of days ago, my husband and I got a notice that we’ll be receiving George’s $600 tax rebate. Money that could shore up Social Security, fund renewable energy research, support education — George wants us to take it to the mall. I’ve set the notice aside in the corner where I keep unanswered mail. I’ll deal with it later.
More immediately, I need to know what I’m going to say to George today. Do I ask him to forbid oil and gas exploration on the Rocky Mountain Front, a great wall of mountain plunked onto the flats of eastern Montana where grizzlies still nose out of the protective hills in search of food? Do I ask him to address global warming in concrete, immediate ways, raising gas-mileage standards, providing tax incentives for alternative energy use? Do I query him about Vice President Cheney’s refusal to disclose the identity of the business interests with whom his energy task force met?
Truthfully, on this cloudy-edgy monsoon morning I don’t have energy for outrage. I wake to a stiff neck. I’m worried about layoffs at my office. As the simplest target, I settle on the tax rebate, telling the White House operator it “reveals poor priorities for the administration and a lack of leadership on issues like Social Security.” I want to say more, to link economic growth to global warming, sops to big oil to lost opportunities to invest in clean technology, but as I start to roll the operator says, “The tax rebate. You’re against it?” I let the rest go.
JULY 30: I don’t think I’ve chatted yet with George about his salvage logging policy. Salvage logging means, in theory, carefully culling forests to prevent fires and disease outbreaks. In practice, in my view, it’s often a cover for a plum timber sale, with “forest health” and Smokey the Bear used as excuses to cut trees. I call to make my case.
The operator answers quickly — despite my phone company’s warnings of long waits, they’re rarely more than a minute or two. Anyway, I’ve long since ceased caring how long George keeps me on hold. My need to talk to him has grown less peevish, more personal. There are things I really want to explain. I want to tell him about a stand of fire-bred aspen I know in the Alaskan interior, like a sudden pale-green shimmering pond in the darker spruce. In Montana there are open parks under ponderosa pines and fields of fireweed where I’ve flopped down to lie with the flower heads hovering over me, a friendly pink swarm. He’s making decisions all the time about what should happen to places like those, to people like me, choices about what America should be. So many of his choices feel so wrong to me. I want him to know it.
But instead of a making a plea from the heart, I stick to the flat, simple, coded language of the public comment, asking George to reconsider his forest policy and salvage logging in particular.
The operator asks, “What kind of policy?” She sounds tired of the morning’s comments and complaints, though here in Arizona it’s barely 8:00 a.m.
“Forest policy,” I enunciate.
She tries to repeat back my statement, flounders, asks, “So what are you against? Forests?”
At least I can laugh, and she laughs too. Nobody’s against forests. When I start again she cuts in, “How about I say you’re against salvage logging?”
“Okay, that’s it, in a nutshell,” I say. And it is, if you only have a nutshell to work with.
AUGUST 6: It’s hot — low 100s, black thunderheads building against a charcoal matte sky at dusk. It’s the point in the summer when I get cranky, tapped out. My vacation is still weeks away, business is bad, and my job is in jeopardy. The White House operator picks up before I can fully assemble my thoughts. I’ve just learned about George’s plans to halt grizzly bear recovery, the process of reintroducing bears to portions of their historic range where they were hunted out decades ago. I intend to write a letter. But a message on George’s line can’t hurt as well. My opening statement, “I’m calling to express my support for grizzly bear recovery in Montana and Idaho,” earns me a “Your support of what in where?”
We get my support of what in where straightened out, sign off with minimum fuss.
At times like these, I wonder about the operator with whom I’ve just spoken. Has she kicked off her shoes while she answers calls on a sweltering Washington morning? The operators are usually women, generally older and Southerners, from their voices. And they’re volunteers. What sense do they make of the likes of me, calling from so far away with my pleas for bears and unsalvaged trees?
This Arizona morning, as I try to imbibe enough coffee to jumpstart my journey to the office where I’ll sit for eight hours in a building surrounded by furniture outlet stores and auto detailers, seems even to me a long way from grizzly bears. The structure of life under American capitalism, fears about job security, approaching middle age, and my own choices are combining to turn me into a person I didn’t expect to become. A former park ranger, these days I have little enough contact with the wild world. Instead, I spend an hour a day with Little Susie Perfect firming my real buns in the virtual outside. (Look up to the beautiful sky, Little Susie instructs as we do yoga — your ceiling, for those of you at home.)
For all this, I can’t really hold George responsible.
AUGUST 14: My most efficient call yet. My issue: national monuments. Before he left office, Clinton, emulating Teddy Roosevelt, designated a pile of new monuments, including some in Arizona. Our Governor Hull has been complaining since about having them foisted upon us by Washington, though they’re popular with Arizonans. I ask George to leave the monuments in place, let them stand rather than reverse their creation. The operator takes down my message with quick understanding. “Got it,” she says. Today George is helping to build a trail at Rocky Mountain National Park — a photo op. I’m off the phone in under two minutes.
AUGUST 20: Yippee! I leave soon to vacation in the great republic of Canada, where I plan to spend some of my tax rebate, after tithing to organizations and causes dear, as George knows, to my heart. He’s down at his Texas ranch, untouchable.
One last call before I go. The operator sounds young, with good hearing. I’m grateful because I have questions. What happens to the comments people like me leave? How are they gathered and delivered? Are they reduced to pure numbers, so many fors and againsts, or are they somehow preserved as individual statements?
“They’re delivered to the White House at the end of the day,” she says.
“But in what form?” I ask.
“It depends on the comment,” she says. She seems about to go further, pauses, settles on, “We send them in the best possible form for the comment.” I get the feeling she’s trying to bring to an end what is becoming an irritating call.
I haven’t intended to be irritating. What I really want to know is, Does this matter? I fear that my little opinions just dissipate, becoming so much more hot air circling the burdened Earth. Sensing the end of her patience, I switch to the main purpose of my call. I tell her that my comment is a question: If the Kyoto Protocol — an international agreement George has just rejected — isn’t the right way to work on global warming, what does he intend to do about it?
My voice must be full of something, a seemingly personal need, because she says sharply, “I don’t speak for the president. I just take comments.”
“That was my comment,” I say.
“So you want him to make an announcement about what he’s going to do?” she asks.
“I want him to take it seriously.”
“I’ll pass that along,” she says brightly. We say goodbye.
I really wanted to tell him to stop with his stupid photo-ops, building trails and kissing trees. You can put frosting on a piece of shit, but that doesn’t make it a cupcake. But I’ve already accrued enough bad karma by annoying the White House Comment Line Volunteer Operators (and assorted dental insurance customer service reps) with my inability to leave my emotions behind. I’m going to Canada. I hope George won’t come with me.
SEPTEMBER 10: I decided not to call George this morning. There’s so much to talk about — sea otters! drilling! warming! environmental justice! — and so little time. Each issue I’ve brought up this summer, and the thousands I didn’t get to, and the connections that join them, and me to them, and even George to them and to me: They all deserve more attention, more nuance, more complexity than I can squeeze into a three-minute phone call.
Of course the busy volunteer operators, tasked with answering and recording, don’t want to engage in deep conversations about how to make the world better. And George? As much as I’ve tried to personalize the relationship in my mind, all summer I’ve essentially been calling his customer service line. And I’ve found this calling seductive, giving as it does an illusion of connection to the seat of power, of significance, of your call is important to the president.
But my calls, my ideas, they’re not really important to George. If my comments reach him at all, they’re delivered to the White House as ticks on a chart or tiny pieces of data buried in a statistic. I know change can happen when all the data points begin to accumulate and cohere. But the comment line’s personal, individual quality, its hard-of-hearing operators with nice, friendly voices? It’s a show, a sham. Even worse, I don’t like who I become as I make these calls. As I’ve said, I’m not at my best in the role of customer.
One concern I never got around to discussing with George is the way that American-as-customer is subsuming the role of American-as-everything-else. The peculiar language of toll-free service, with its emphasis on the satisfaction you’re owed rather than reciprocal relationships with others, has seeped into all sorts of unlikely realms — member of the congregation as customer, lover as customer, cancer patient as customer. It’s no surprise that parents sometimes approach schools as though they were car dealerships, trying to get the best deal. Or that visitors to wild places, dissatisfied with the show, complain to the management, demanding coffee shops and more animals. Satisfaction guaranteed, though often not achieved, as all of us — citizens, congregants, lovers, patients, parents, visitors, and actual customers — well know from experience.
I’m not arguing with capitalism here, I’m just recognizing that even at its best, the customer model of citizenship is pretty limited. Amid the infinite possibility of the marketplace, where there’s supposed to be a product for every desire or need, we won’t find one to magically right a changed climate. In fact, most problems are too complicated to be solved with a cheery greeting, the latest software patch, or a free appetizer if your meal is taking too long in the kitchen. Once the grizzly is gone, as a species, it’s gone. Adventures in cloning aside, nobody’s going to bring out an improved version Griz.6 for 2006. Once somebody drills for oil, there’s no such thing as undrilling. Better schools for a few children whose parents have consumer clout won’t make for an educated citizenry. Though the customer model — you pay your money, you get good service — has an appealing symmetry, customer satisfaction isn’t an expansive enough ideal to create a good world.
So, for now, I’ve made enough phone calls to George. Little Susie Perfect sometimes makes a good point: If you rest, you rust. I need to move on. The weather is starting to break. I’ve begun a campaign to e-mail my senators and representatives. I’m leaving the White House Comment Line to others. George, I’m told, has recently installed an answering machine. You can now record a message without chatting with an operator at all. Hey, give him a call — (202) 456-1111.