The Party Cloudy Patriot is a loose collection of essays cobbled into a narrative of sorts, and that narrative revolves around patriotism in current political times while framing through the lenses of the past. In this case, Sarah Vowell was living in the fresh hell of 2001; the country was still reeling from the disastrous election cycle that falsely awarded W the win, Clinton’s impeachment was still fresh and Al Gore’s know-it-all pigeonhole could not save the Left, and a day in September changed us in ways that were terrifying, unpredictable, and as we see very clearly now- long lasting. Describing oneself as a patriot changed- Vowell puts it best:
“For the better part of the 1990s, it seemed like the only Americans who publicly described themselves as patriots were scary militia types hiding out in the backwoods of Michigan and Montana, cleaning their guns.”
I live in New Hampshire. We just survived our Primary on Tuesday, and now the hordes of politicos have made a run for South Carolina. They had plenty of time ahead of the election to knock multiple times per day on my door, to text my phone incessantly, to mail entire rain forests worth of paper fliers to every box in the state, and to populate every street corner with dozens upon dozens of signs for their candidates of choice. Believe it or not, but they cleaned up absolutely none of those fliers or signs before taking off in the dark of night. Hundreds of signs are now turning to mush in snow banks and flapping across the highway like low-flying birds. This state was mildly important for a moment, but now it’s gone back to the grim outpost of tourism shenanigans and outspoken racism that it has come to be over the last few decades. Why the NH Primary diatribe? Because time is a flat circle, my friend!
What does this have to do with New Hampshire? The most affecting piece in this collection, to me at least, is a story around Al Gore, Concord High School, the NH Primary, and media representation. Vowell claims that the he seed of anti-intellectualism in America started growing during this primary cycle, and I am quick to agree. Vowell interviews students and teachers who invited (and received!) candidates in order to speak directly to the students: how their voices matter, what they can do with them, and why it is important to take a personal stake in politics both big and small. Gore spoke candidly with the students, and had inspiring stories of young people and the impact that they had made in their communities teed up and ready to go. The stories were a hit, but they were misrepresented by the press- leading the students feeling disenfranchised and Gore the target of more jabs and scrutiny from the press- which was already fairly frequent. Gore was, still is, and will always be a nerd. He was poked fun at constantly throughout for knowing things and wanting to know things. His team hired an image consultant to make him more “manly”- hence the stomping around in cowboy boots. The feeling had been bubbling up for a while, but now it was boiling over- it was bad to know things, bad to learn things, and bad to be interested in knowing more things. We are sitting in this quagmire again right now- who is “electable”, who is “likeable”, who one wants to “have a beer with” but forget about the blood, sweat, and tears of learning, stewardship, policy and procedure.
Here we are in the current timeline. NH Primary just days in the past, the moldering signs forgotten on street corners, and more and more talk of “likability”. I want my leaders to be smart. I want my leaders prepared. Hell, I want my leaders to be nerds.
“I wish it were different. I wish that we privileged knowledge in politicians, that the ones who know things didn’t have to hide it behind brown pants, and that the know-not-enoughs were laughed all the way to the Maine border on their first New Hampshire meet and greet. I wish that in order to secure his party’s nomination, a presidential candidate would be required to point at the sky and name all the stars; have the periodic table of the elements memorized; rattle off the kings and queens of Spain; define the significance of the Gatling gun; joke around in Latin; interpret the symbolism in seventeenth-century Dutch painting; explain photosynthesis to a six-year-old; recite Emily Dickinson; bake a perfect popover; build a shortwave radio out of a coconut; and know all the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Two Sleepy People,” Johnny Cash’s “Five Feet High and Rising,” and “You Got the Silver” by the Rolling Stones. After all, the United States is the greatest country on earth dealing with the most complicated problems in the history of the world–poverty, pollution, justice, Jerusalem. What we need is a president who is at least twelve kinds of nerd, a nerd messiah to come along every four years, acquire the Secret Service code name Poindexter, install a Revenge of the Nerds screen saver on the Oval Office computer, and one by one decrypt our woes.”
As always, things within this book have not aged well- just look above to the mention of Revenge of the Nerds (of which there is a lot of discussion throughout the book), a film series full of problematic instances, including but not limited to rape. There’s some Mel Gibson hero worship thrown in as well.
The audiobook is, as most Vowell productions are, a delight. While she does the heavy lifting, there is also voice work provided by David Cross, Conan O’Brien, Seth Green, and Stephen Colbert – just to name a few. Most delightedly, there is original music throughout composed and performed by the ultimate nerd kings themselves, They Might be Giants.