This is a cleaning-the-bathroom meditation – a place the mind wanders when performing an unpleasant task.
Knock on wood, I have had a relatively charmed life. From a global perspective, it would seem a nearly royal existence considering 20th century middle-class American incomes offered fabulous privilege compared to billions of other global citizens. While the middle-class has shriveled in the U.S. and incomes around the world have simultaneously inched upward, any of my complaints can be categorized as first-world whining.
Nonetheless, I grew up working around the house from an early age: cleaning the oven, washing the kitchen or bathroom floors, caring for the yard and shoveling walks. As I got older, I scraped and painted my parent’s house, re-built the fence and a stone retaining wall, and other needed repairs. None of those jobs was onerous. The first job at which I earned a wage was in 6thgrade when the owner of the Sweet Shop down the street paid me under the table to mop the floor, make coffee, and set out the freshly delivered donuts. Ah, the aroma!
The first job to show up on my Social Security record was summer camp, but with college on the horizon I soon needed better pay. There were two summers of construction, two more on the County Hi-way Department, and campus work-study jobs in the dining hall. Each job gave me a foundation upon which to make my way into adulthood, and along the way, gave me experience in labor and Union organizing.
This memory of work surfaces now and again as I use a toothbrush to clean tile in the shower, wipe the gleaming white toilet bowl inside and out, or occasionally during tedious non-bathroom labors like scraping paint. I think about whoever is occupying the White House.
I am pretty sure this flight of mind began in 1992 when George H. W. Bush was running for a second term. Speaking at a National Grocers Association convention, he declared his amazement at the “new” swipe technology he witnessed on display, a technology that had been in place for fifteen years. His press secretary was quick to assure the American public that indeed, the President had been in a grocery store before. In those days, three small children and both parents working, I can remember feeling more resentful as I cleaned the bathroom and contemplated our national leadership.
These days as I scour the tub and tile, my contemplations are more thoughtful than resentful, and hover around which presidential terms in office have demonstrated true leadership rather than mere exertion of power or incompetence. The best leadership exhibited by Presidents, regardless of the particular politics they represented, have been those with common origins – not just the impoverished like Lincoln, LBJ, or Obama, but including those of modest origins like Reagan and Truman.
Meanwhile, even though FDR was from great wealth, his encounter with polio and battle to compensate for it, transformed his character. Hoover and Nixon, who started out poor, clearly weren’t blessed by it. But a golden spoon and its supreme privileges did not help Cleveland, W., or Trump offer the nation the leadership it needed either. Still cleaning, still contemplating.