America, You Sexy Bitch
by Meghan McCain & Michael Black
Michael: This is stupid. I’m in an airplane flying across the country to go spend a month driving back across the country in an RV with Meghan McCain, a woman I barely know, with the vague purpose of “talking to people.” About what? Politics, their lives, how they want the government to function, all of it with the idea that we will somehow gather enough material to write a book together and save the country. I mean, that is just pure stupid.
The thing is, I don’t like talking to people. I barely talk to my wife and two kids. Why am I leaving them for a month to do this? I was perfectly happy to complain about America from my home in Connecticut. That’s what I’d been doing, and it seemed to be working fine. Why did I agree to take my bitching and moaning on the road with this bubbly twenty-seven-year-old blond-haired, rich Republican chick I’ve only met twice? How did this even happen?
The answer: Twitter and Ambien.
During Obama’s first presidential campaign, I got invited to appear on MSNBC to make jokes. You’ve seen these segments on cable news where a comedian comes on and makes a few lame jokes about whatever’s in the headlines that day, and the host pretends to laugh while viewers think to themselves, That guy’s not funny. My job that evening was to be the guy who wasn’t funny.
I don’t remember the context, but Meghan McCain’s name somehow came up during the broadcast. She’d done or said something that flew in the face of Republican orthodoxy, as she often does, and I said to Lawrence O’Donnell that Meghan was my favorite Republican.
A couple of years later, I was doing a talk show pilot for E! and I needed a guest. Meghan agreed to do the show via satellite as a favor to her agent, whose good friend is my agent. Meghan was vivacious, charming, and she sported a new “less Republican” haircut; afterwards my extremely liberal friend Joe asked if it would be all right with me if he married her. I gave my blessing. I figured Republicans are into arranged marriages, so it would probably be fine.
Meghan: I know it may seem a little impulsive and extreme to agree to write a book with essentially a perfect stranger, but I have a tendency to be impulsive and make extreme decisions. I also believe in seizing the day and making the most of every single opportunity that ever crosses my path. One of the mantras I live by is Hunter S. Thompson’s “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” I am a Hunter S. Thompson groupie, and if this particular scenario didn’t encompass seizing the day, then I don’t know what does. Besides, it sounded like a lot of fun, and I love combining anything that includes politics and having fun.
Michael: Right after E! decided they didn’t need my talk show hosting services, I was up late one night nursing the onset of an existential crisis. Swirling in my brain were the facts that I would be turning forty in a few months, I didn’t have a steady income, I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, and I had a family to support, with no immediate prospects for employment. When I am feeling like this, I have one friend I turn to for support: Ambien.
The purpose of Ambien is to ease restless souls like mine into a deep and dreamless sleep. But Ambien is also great fun if you just want to get on the Internet and mess around for a few hours, which was my main intention. This is, of course, a mistake, the electronic equivalent of drinking and driving. Ambien relaxes the mind in such a way that you may find yourself saying or doing surprising things under its influence. For me, this normally involves writing nonsensical postings on my Twitter account while eating junk food. As a soon-to-be-forty married father of two, this is what passes for a “crazy night.”
Half an hour after taking the Ambien, I am elbow deep into a bag of Tostitos and cruising my Twitter account (1.7 million followers. Not bragging. Just saying. Okay, bragging. Follow me: @michaelianblack) when I notice that Meghan McCain has just posted something. I respond to her. She responds to me. Then the Ambien seizes my fingers and types the following: “We should write a book together.”
After a few moments, she writes back: “Sure!”
The exclamation mark makes me think she isn’t serious because exclamation marks are rarely the sign of a serious thought. I write back: “I’m serious.”
Around dawn, I wake up on the couch, covered in Tostitos crumbs, and stumble upstairs to join my wife, Martha, in bed. Something is troubling me, though, something I had perhaps done under the influence of a powerful sleeping agent. Just before falling back to sleep, I realize what it is: I think I have just proposed writing a book with a woman—a Republican woman—I have never actually met, based on the dubious facts that I once said something nice about her on TV, she seems cool, and my friend Joe liked her new haircut. The woman in question is also the daughter of the other guy in the last presidential election. Moreover, I’m pretty sure she said, “Sure!”
Meghan: When Michael first popped the question on Twitter, I thought that this project could be a significant endeavor—to try and showcase two entirely different perspectives and backgrounds in a civil and funny manner, while attempting to tackle the bigger-picture problems and issues currently facing this country. All of it was right up my alley and it was an easy decision to make. Attempting to fuse two different perspectives and worlds is pretty much what I spend my life attempting to do, so that’s why I said yes so quickly.
I loved the notion of teaming up with someone I barely knew and probably would not have gotten a chance to work with or really know in any significant way if we had not elected to embark on this project. We wanted to use ourselves as guinea pigs in order to look at what is going on in America—politically and culturally. Our country is going through unbelievably difficult and tenuous times, and it sometimes feels like we are becoming more polarized and angry at each other than ever before. There had to be a way to make a connection between divergent points of view, and to then take that unity out on the road as a way to hear Americans through fresh ears.
More than anything, I was enticed by the spontaneity of this plan. Ever since the election, I have had a jones to be back out on the road, so the chance to “go where no one has gone before” while using our fledgling relationship as an experiment in bipartisan mixology was a golden and bizarre opportunity to try something new and unique. I needed no convincing. It really was as simple as, “Sure!”
Michael: So here I am, about a month later, crammed into a coach seat somewhere above the checkerboard squares of the American heartland. From up here, the country looks vast and peaceful. I cannot see any foreclosure notices, no methamphetamine labs. There aren’t any televisions on this plane, so I can’t watch Left screaming at Right on cable news. No Internet. No Drudge, no HuffPo. Just a plane full of passengers heading to the same destination. It’s a decent, albeit shallow, metaphor for the way I’d like my country to be. The people on this plane probably have no more in common than anybody else. Or, I guess the more optimistic way to say it is that they have just as much in common as people everywhere: We’re probably all American, or at least mostly American. We probably all love our families. We are probably all glad we’re not still at LaGuardia, one of our nation’s worst airports. Beyond that, I know that we share at least one important goal: first and foremost, we’d like the plane not to crash.
All this common ground below us. It’s hard to get a sense of America’s size from the air. It’s only on the ground, driving across, that you really get a feel for the enormity of our country. It’s a big place. BIG.
The first time I became aware of this fact was when I was nineteen years old and traveling the country as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
In fact, my love of country came as a direct result of that first road trip. Until then, I hadn’t really thought much about America one way or another. I hadn’t done much traveling, except for a few lousy family vacations to Colonial Williamsburg and the Plymouth Rock, both super-boring. Once we went to Gettysburg when I was eleven. All I saw was a field.
I’d grown up in New Jersey, a state that has earned all the jokes ever made about it. I didn’t bond with my hometown, didn’t do a tour in the Boy Scouts, didn’t put my hand over my heart when we sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at Little League games. This was in the eighties, when Americans were still recovering from the psychic shock of the Vietnam War, and patriotism was often seen as a suspect emotion, something Richard Nixon wanted everybody to feel, mostly so they didn’t start asking too many questions about Richard Nixon.
Sure, I recited the Pledge of Allegiance, but I did it in that same droning monotone that children all over the country do, not even understanding the words, except for “under God,” which I hated saying even at a young age. I used to just clamp my mouth during that part and thought I was a pretty bitching rebel for doing so.
As a whole, the nation seemed like a big and puzzling abstraction, not much more than something we could all cheer for every four years when McDonald’s celebrated the Olympics with scratchoff game tickets. America was fine, sure, but a free small fries was even better.
Meghan: As much as I consider myself a Republican and feel in almost every way intellectually and culturally tied to both the Republican Party as an organization and its many shadings of conservative theory, on paper I am in many ways “culturally liberal.” I was born into a wealthy, famous family. I went to an Ivy League school and majored in art history, which means I know a lot about pretentious artists and art critics. I’m a writer and television commentator employed by “the liberal network” MSNBC. I am a huge supporter of and fighter for gay marriage and LGBT rights. I’m unmarried and not completely convinced that the idea of marriage isn’t outdated. I am almost twenty-eight and I do not have children, and I think abstinence-only education is delusional and dangerous. I live in the heart of the West Village in New York City. I consider myself a God-fearing Christian, but I’m also a big believer in karma and sometimes get a feeling like I may have had past lives. All of that being said, Jesus and I came to an understanding of each other a long time ago and my relationship with him is one of acceptance. My God isn’t Rick Santorum’s God, and my God loves everyone for exactly who they are. My God does not make mistakes. This list can go on and on . . . which is why I have always hated labels and stereotypes about people, especially when it comes to Americans and what exactly it means to be a “real American” or come from “real America.” Because if I were to adhere to all the stereotypical terms that make someone a “real American,” I might find that, in many ways, I am falling desperately short.
Michael: My feelings of detachment from America changed when I dropped out of school to become Raphael, the silent and brooding Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. In the early nineties, the Ninja Turtles were the shit. Kids loved them, there were a couple movies out, and some enterprising capitalists thought the time was ripe for a touring stage show, kind of like Turtles on Ice without the ice.
For four months, I crisscrossed the country with my friend Ben in a smelly dark-blue Chevy Astro minivan crowded with luggage and two large coffin cases containing Ninja Turtle costumes. And it was then—on the road, staying at cheap motels, attempting (and failing) to seduce MILFs, and eating more Pizza Hut than a human body should—that I fell in love with America.
Some highlights from that trip: I remember standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon and thinking about how the word “grand” didn’t do it justice: A better word would be “fabulous.” The Fabulous Canyon! I remember being on the Mexican border, dressed as Raphael, standing on top of an ice cream shop performing in front of thousands of kids on the ground below; walking the parade route at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, tears streaming down my eyes, because the entire weight of the head was resting on the bridge of my nose. I remember standing on top of our van in the middle of the woods somewhere with our hands over our hearts singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and meaning it. But mostly I remember all the people we met: all the good-hearted Americans across the country. Everywhere we stopped, the people were kind and gracious and welcoming. On that trip, pretending to be a turtle granted superpowers due to radioactive sewage, I discovered what it means to love my country.
Meghan: I have had a love affair with the Republican Party and its doctrines that began the first day I stepped foot on my father’s presidential campaign. The majority of my twenties, and I expect the rest of my life, will be spent fighting for the soul of the Republican Party to be more accepting and big-tent oriented. I believe my life’s purpose is to change things within the Republican Party, so that at some point it is not considered so controversial to live the kind of life I live and believe in smaller government at the same time. I have been handed a front-row seat to Republican politics, and as I have grown into the person that I am today, I have always felt a great responsibility to pass on my knowledge about politics, share my experiences, and try to bring a fresh perspective on a political party that, unfortunately, has not always been so warm and welcoming to new ideas. Republican politics is my entire life, and I love it.
It is the blood that pumps through my veins. My mother was pregnant with me at the 1984 Reagan convention. Politics is quite literally the only world I have ever known and the only world I ever want to know. It is what gets me up in the morning and motivates what I do every single day. I continue to be exhilarated by the process and find joy attempting to help inspire a new way of thinking within Republican Party politics.
I love America on a visceral level that is complicated to explain. I have a great passion for America and what it means to be an American. I love every single thing about being an American, the good and the bad, and I would fight until my last breath to defend all the ideals this country stands for. I even love everything about our crazy political process and the people it produces. And yet, one of the more exhausting parts of my political ideology is that because I have never completely toed the Republican party line, many hardcore conservatives accuse me of not being a real Republican and have referred to me as a RINO: Republican In Name Only. Somehow this name is given to anyone who thinks gay people should have the right to marry, or diverge on social issues from the extreme right wing of the party. In the subtle subtext of conservative talk radio and right-wing extremists, apparently this makes me less of a “real” American and not “pure enough” to be considered a legitimate member of the Republican Party. As a direct result of my personal experiences with this kind of name calling, I have never been a big fan of labeling people so linearly. Yes, Michael is an East Coast liberal-pacifist-socialist-elitist snob-comedian who has never shot a gun, wants to give away health care, open up the borders, and loves Obama—but that doesn’t make him any less of an American than I am. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping I find out during our trip.
Michael: When Republicans make fun of liberal “elitism,” they are absolutely right to do so. Liberals really do think they know better than everybody else. But the reverse is true, too, which is to say, Republicans have developed a kind of winking anti-intellectualism. You know, it’s that whole “good ol’ boy, just me, my dog, and my truck” that scoffs at fancy book learnin’, and relies instead upon the common-sense homilies of country music singers and Joe the Plumber. It’s just as phony and contrived as Democratic arugula-munching snobbery.
Both political parties are as guilty of perpetuating the stereotypes about themselves as the other guys. But those stereotypes can’t be the whole story, can they? The people we see shouting at each other on television aren’t representative of normal Americans, are they? Are people in real life as mad as the people on TV?
If cable news is to be believed, then our entire country is engaged in a national pissing contest. It’s just one dopey pundit trying to out-pee the next one. Is that really who we are? I hope not. That being said, I’m pretty sure I can pee farther than Meghan. Before the turtle trip, I didn’t really pay too much attention to politics.
I was only nineteen and had not yet voted in a presidential election. I thought of myself as a Democrat because that’s the way I was brought up. People are generally born into their political persuasions, just like their religions. Similar to my Judaism, however, my Democratic leanings were always on the agnostic side. I thought I believed in Democratic principles but wasn’t certain. Honestly, I wasn’t even really sure what they were.
Twenty years later, and after much contemplation, I still don’t have much of an idea. Yet I identify with the Democratic Party. Why? Because I’m pretty sure I understand what the Republicans stand for, and I’m not down with them.
To quote the patron saint of the modern Republican Party, Ronald Reagan: “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” To wit: government should stay out of people’s lives except when a woman accidentally gets pregnant. Or when banks or oil companies need money. Republicans believe in free speech unless the language being spoken is Spanish. Also, I think they want to give guns to fetuses. If my understanding of the Republican Party is incomplete, then so be it. But that’s exactly why I’m doing this road trip; my job, as I see it, is to confirm all the worst stereotypes about Republicans I hold so dear.
Meghan: The Republican Party has a long history of being for the “little guy”; it’s just in the fast pace of the modern news cycle, hungry for red meat, that the message has been twisted and exaggerated to the point where the most extreme voices get the most attention. A lot of negative repercussions have occurred as a result of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. I think the biggest problem is that for anyone to get any real attention it feels like the message has to be an extreme one. The choice has come down to Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann. If in any way you are seen as compromising on either side, automatically the echo chamber considers you a turncoat and not “pure” enough of a liberal or a conservative. The news cycle makes people afraid to compromise, lest they be crucified for finding a middle ground. It’s a really scary and dangerous political climate that the media and politicians have produced for the American public, and more often than not I myself have been caught in the crosshairs. Unfortunately, if you want to get any message across, it must be done in talking points and sound bites.
That being said, the American public seems to have an insatiable appetite for extreme talking heads. Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that Republicans feel belittled and stereotyped by many members of the “liberal media elite.” As a result, it makes Republicans automatically overly defensive and extreme in their reactions to criticism from liberals. I mean, at times I have felt belittled and stereotyped in the media and I’m clearly not the most extreme conservative in the news cycle. Anyone who does not think that the majority of the media is in the bag with Obama and the Democratic Party has no experience dealing with the media. As a result, you get more radical conservative opinions that serve as a pushback, with the pendulum of opinions swinging severely from one side to another. Listen, I am part of that news cycle and a member of the media; I am an employee of a news network. I am not saying there are not good people who are trying to change things in the media but, for whatever reason, they never seem to get as much attention as the more radical voices. It’s this horrific, vicious cycle that just seems to be getting more and more polarized with each passing year.
What scares me more than anything is the idea that the world of politics will stop evolving. What if there really can’t be such a thing as a more socially moderate Republican? I believe that if this party doesn’t evolve it will die, and I don’t want to watch it die, because Democrats are damaging this country and we should stop letting them. We have to start showcasing different kinds of opinions within the larger Republican tent. There cannot be just extreme voices being heard because all it does is make a lot of people tuned out and turned off from the world of politics. I believe all Americans need to start taking more responsibility for the kind of extreme rhetoric that is permeating our political culture; otherwise, quite frankly, as a country we’re screwed.
Michael: Democrats are supposed to be the party of the little guy. They’re supposed to be interested in workers’ rights, minorities, helping those with less achieve more. Pro-union, pro-choice, anti– machine gun. But over the last thirty years or so, it has started to feel more like the party of small, special interests. It feels old and faded and kind of crusty, like a pair of Walter Mondale’s boxers. All the great causes feel played out. There just doesn’t seem like anything for us Democrats to rally around. Honestly, who’s going to burn their bra over the Glass-Steagall Act?
As much as I want to be a committed Democrat, I can’t quite justify it to myself. I don’t know what I’m fighting for except opposing what Republicans are fighting for, which more or less boils down to Jesus and putting more money in the pockets of rich white guys.
Yes, I understand these are all stereotypes, but stereotypes are fun because they allow me to feel intellectually superior. Liberals love nothing more than to feel intellectually superior. It’s what we do best. We sit around and say pretentious things while listening to pretentious bands like Radiohead and feeling smug about everything. It’s a great way to be, if only because we get to eat so much imported cheese. Liberals love imported cheese. In fact, it’s pretty much all we eat. Well, that and quinoa, which is a grain whose main appeal is that it’s difficult to pronounce, thus making us feel even more intellectually superior when we get the name right. We read books we hate and watch artsy movies we loathe. We get off on it. A typical dinner table lib conversation:
“Have you read the latest Franzen?”
“I looooved it.”
“I thought it was pedantic.”
“Well of course it was pedantic. That’s what I loved about it.”
Meghan: Republican stereotypes sometimes hit the nail square on. We love to read, as long as it is either the Bible or a nonfiction account of a prominent party favorite, especially if it is a book about President Reagan (especially if it’s about President and Mrs. Reagan). Over a dinner of perfectly grilled steak from a cow we knew by name and shot ourselves, and a potato that has been baked in the skin that God gave it, we love to dissect the latest entry to the Republican canon:
“Have you read Bill O’Reilly’s recent book on Lincoln?”
“I loved it. Read it in three days. Hands down the best book ever written about President Lincoln.”
“Bill O’Reilly is a man who truly loves America.”
“O’Reilly loves Lincoln because he is a true God-fearing American in a world gone to hell.”
How’s that for stereotypes about Republicans?