On my left sat my friend Cindy, who warned me before the last presidential debate that she would be shouting at the television; to my right, a few seats away, a 60-something woman in comfortable slacks, Naturalizer shoes and a flowered blouse. She was the kind of woman who might wear a cardigan over her shoulders caught in front with a silver brooch. Her reading glasses pinched the lower bridge of her nose. And she was knitting: Two spools, one blue, one gray, wound together in a medium-sized stockingnette stitch (knit one row, turn, purl another). I assumed she was . . . well, you know.
From the start, it seemed risky — reckless, even — to watch the final presidential debate last Wednesday among strangers of who-knows-what political persuasion at the downtown Central Library. I have never been much interested in muffling my political rage, but as this Election Day draws near, my harangues have begun to resemble the early symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown. I have, in the last few weeks, chased down Republican-bumperstickered SUVs on my bicycle; flipped off, from the passenger seat, a woman in a beat-up Honda with the Bush team’s logo plastered across her back window (“You’re going to get us hurt!” screamed my friend in the driver’s seat); and even sent a vitriolic e-mail to a professed Nader supporter celebrating his shrewd decision to elect Bush and thus keep his job as a grassroots organizer. The challenge was clear: Watch the debate in public, and keep your loud mouth shut.
It was easy for the first two answers of the night: Kerry aired his now-musty saws about cargo holds and shipping containers; Bush did his “freedom on the march” thing, at which we’d already vented disgust in previous debates. Of the 20 people gathered in that early hour, a little after 6 p.m., some browsed the newspaper, some chatted calmly, others watched, staring straight at the screen.
But then came Kerry’s follow-up: “Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, ‘Where’s Osama bin Laden?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t really think about him very much. I’m not that concerned.’”
And Bush: “Gosh, I’d — I don’t think I ever said I’m not worried about Osama bin Laden.”
And the Knitting Woman: “Oh yes, you did.”
She didn’t know it — she probably didn’t realize it was necessary — but the Knitting Woman set us free. Noises began to slip out of the audience like dirty little secrets; a groan here, a guffaw there, a bold peal of laughter. We were like children testing the boundaries of propriety, gleefully uttering obscenities to an amused adult. The Knitting Woman was our standard-bearer.
On Bush’s answer to the question about the contaminated flu shot, she laughed hard in the long pause after “Bob.”
On “PAYGO” (Bush: “You pay, and he goes ahead and spends”), she shook her head, furrowed her brow, and audibly harrumphed.
On “Senator, you sit on the far left bank”: She lowered her needles and hissed.
When Bob Schieffer posed his question about whether homosexuality is a choice, the Knitting Woman exhaled angrily before the candidates answered. I looked again and noticed her friend sitting next to her. They shared the same haircut. (And, by the way, did Bob Schieffer really mean to imply it’s okay to be queer only if it’s biological destiny? Or that gayness is a psychiatric disorder, like schizophrenia?)
By 6:50, the audience had grown to more than 60, and from what I could tell, every last one wanted Bush out. We were in it together now — the Knitting Woman and me.
“I sure hope it’s not the administration’s fault!” Bush said about health-care costs.
We looked at each other and sighed.
“We need electronic medical records,” Bush said.
“What!?” the Knitting Woman shouted over her clicking. “So they can keep better track of how they’re killing us!”
“Veterans are getting very good health care,” Bush declared.
“Oh yeah, right.”
“Our border patrol will be more likely to be able to focus on doing their job.”
I half expected him to answer, staring, like he was, straight into the camera.
By 7 o’clock, the night had been given over to the troublemakers: the people who voted for Nader last time and wish they had that luxury again; the people who just can’t believe any sane person could vote for this character on the screen with his squirrelly wisecracks and cavalier idiocy.
“Make sure the education system works for everyone!” Bush said. The audience groaned. The Knitting Woman laughed out loud. A woman behind me, smartly dressed in a blue jacket, her white-silver hair just brushing her shoulders, leaned in: “This,” she said, “is from a guy who got through Yale with C’s.”