Remember that guy in the big London scene in Wordsworth’s Prelude—the battered old veteran begging on the streets, holding a sign that tells his story? His image haunted Wordsworth for many years, mostly because unlike us (and oh, this speaks terribly of what we have become) he didn’t see this sort of thing all the time. It shocked Wordsworth to see that, among all those people, there was so little community that no one knew this man’s name, let alone his journey, his struggle, and his pain. It shocked him that the man couldn’t count on the community to know him—in the ever-growing metropolis, the man who needed his story told was reduced to holding it on a sheet before him, hoping someone would pause.
I thought of that guy when, some years ago, I stood at a train platform outside Chicago. An older man walked by, wearing that mix of odd bits of cammo and discarded workout clothing that we’ve come to associate with homeless veterans. His war would have been Vietnam, and he walked back and forth in an exaggeratedly slow pace, looking at the ground, speaking to himself. Or, rather, not to himself, but to—well, I was the only other one around. But it wasn’t an address to me, either—it was something I was meant to overhear. He spoke in an affected voice, as if he were trying to sound like a voice-over announcer in a documentary, commenting on footage. And the footage was of a protest rally of some kind. “Students and veterans alike gathered,” he said, to some imagined television audience, “and when the man on the platform said how the president lied the crowd shouted I actually understand this” he continued, “it was in Carbondale, a cold fall day…” he continued this way, and I began to see that here, in a dirty army cap, was Wordsworth’s veteran—telling the story he needed to tell, but at such a terrible distance, so far from being able to connect. One sensed he had been alone a long time. One sensed he had been sent to war young, and that he had never really come back.
I mention this today because I have known many veterans of that war. I’ve worked with them, or lived near them, or found them in my family. These are the lucky ones, the ones who came home. And I don’t know a single one of them who hadn’t, like the man at the train station, left some part of himself back there. And today we find out, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Richard Nixon, after he’d won the election but before he took office, worked behind the scenes to scuttle the peace talks between north and south Vietnam. He didn’t want the Democrats to take credit for peace. And so the war continued for years. One could look up the dates and count the number of people who died for Nixon’s vanity, but those numbers always lie. Those numbers always leave out the dead or half-dead who came home and walked like ghosts in the streets.
But this isn’t about Nixon, for whose sake one wishes Dante’s Hell were real. This is about the danger of having a president so mad with the thirst for adulation that nothing will be enough, not even the presidency itself. This is about any reckless and fragile president who talks tough, encourages violence, and cares nothing about breaking the lives of others on the anvil of his own vanity. This is about where we are now, and what we’re going to do about it.
There are inauguration day protests scheduled throughout the country. Find yours.