TRICK OR TREAT: Scariness, like beauty and pornography, lies largely in the eye of the beholder. I bring up the relativity of terror because 50 years ago this week, the United States and the evil empire formerly known as the Soviet Union came within a gnat’s lash of nuking it out over the Cuban missile crisis, almost unleashing in the process enough “throw weight,” — according to the Pentagon — to have killed 150 million men, women, and children. Also spooking me out is Mitt Romney’s performance in Round II of the Presidential Debates. Clearly, the night belonged to President Barack Obama, who showed up hyped on Adderall — or some variant of speed lite — rather than the Ambien he’d been abusing prior to their first encounter to help snag some sleep.
Yes, the prez decisively won this week, but I’d say on points. The only knock-out punches to be thrown were by Romney himself, and they were all self-inflicted. Gloating aside, Mitt gave us a few glimpses of the man behind the mask, and frankly, I really wished he hadn’t. What I saw transcended creepy and entered the realm of the genuinely chilling. While that works for Halloween, there are 364 other days of the year for which I’ll need to double down on my Ambien prescription to get 40 winks. I’m just old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis. Barely. I’m not sure if I really remember the mad rush on toilet paper that the missile crisis — so named after Soviet nuclear warheads were discovered in Cuba — triggered or I just think I do. But I definitely remember how freaked out the grown-ups were. Not angry; scared. That’s saying something because back then there was no shortage of things to get scared about. Backyard fall-out shelters — where you chilled after a nuclear attack — were all the rage. It would take decades before they could be rehabilitated as the post-ironic wine cellars for the shabby-chic they are today.
At my elementary school, duck-and-cover drills were a regular occurrence. To this day, I remain amazed that school officials found desks so durable they could withstand a nuclear blast as powerful as all the bombs dropped during World War II combined. That’s when education still counted for something. In high school, I remember having to re-enact the Cuban missile crisis as a class assignment. It was fun. We broke into teams and played war games. I’m not sure what grade I got. We blew up the world. I’d like to say it was the other team’s fault, but it was me. I drew the proverbial line in the sand. I didn’t back down. And I didn’t blink. The Kennedy Administration didn’t blink either. Or so we were told at the time. We won because the Soviets blinked first and sent their flotilla of warships steaming toward Havana back home.
We have since learned, however, that both sides blinked. Nuclear war was averted not because we stood tall and firm — more erectile imagery — but because the Kennedy Administration struck a secret deal with our enemy. It would be revealed only many years later that the United States agreed to remove nuclear warheads it had parked in Turkey, perilously close to the Soviet border; in exchange, the Soviets agreed to yank their warheads out of Cuba, 90 miles from Florida. It should be noted that the Joints Chiefs of Staff and all the bright lights of the Republican Party insisted at the time we had no option but to invade Cuba. Immediately. And a lot of Democrats thought so, too, like vice president Lyndon B. Johnson. Only because John and Robert Kennedy ignored such advice and had the courage to be soft, squishy, and wishy-washy would 150 million people live to enjoy a nuclear-free winter back in 1962.
In that context, watching Mitt Romney during Tuesday night’s debate gave me a serious case of the willies. I understand testosterone poisoning is an occupational hazard for anyone in politics, but Romney came off as the poster child for the Viagra Generation. Forget the lies, omissions, and policy flip-flops. With Mitt, it was all about establishing alpha-dog primacy, a hormonal secretion of musky male superiority. I admit my perception could be warped; I really don’t like the guy. But in Debate Two — as in Debate One — he displayed open contempt for the moderator, the clock, the rules, the question on the floor, and clearly, his opponent. At least that’s what I saw. About the only thing missing was the fast-grab, bone-crunching handshake. “You’ll get your chance in a minute,” he scolded the president dismissively. “I’m still speaking.” For someone who exhibits such a troubling air of entitlement — an affliction common to people of vast wealth and to Mormon patriarchs — that’s not just bad manners. For someone who personifies the class that’s accumulated unprecedented wealth at great expense to most everybody else by flagrantly disregarding all rules of common sense, ethics, and law, it’s an astonishing display.
But like I say, maybe that’s just me. But in the meantime, we have no shortage of potential Cuban missile crises of our own. There’s Syria. There’s Libya. Throw a dart anywhere on the map. Clearly, we need a commander-in-chief who can handle himself in a fight. But that’s a far cry from electing someone who — by dint of his personality — has a tendency to provoke such fights. The election remains too close to call, and I’m hedging my bets. Between now and November, I’ll be in the market for a hand-me-down backyard bomb shelter. Just make sure it’s stocked with wine. And lots of toilet paper.