Newsletter 95: Former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar and Embracing the Beautiful Foolishness of Youth
I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here is a newsletter from February, about why we need reckless, disappointed youth.
Jim Edgar was a good man, and I was, ever so briefly, refusing to shake his hand.
It was 1992, and Edgar was the governor of the great state of Illinois. He had grown up in neighboring Charleston, Illinois, our sister city, though we in Mattoon liked to think that they were the shittier, redneckier of the major Coles County cities. (Charleston surely thought the same thing about us.) He had been elected governor in 1990, beating Democrat Neil Hartigan, who I’d made my parents, briefly, put up a lawn sign for in our front yard to support. Edgar was beloved in Coles County. He was a Republican in a part of the state that was deeply red before we started classifying everything as either red or blue, he was generally conservative but not radically so, and, mostly, he was from downstate, an area of Illinois we all (rightly) felt ignored by the Chicago jerks up north. I’ve always joked that Illinois is basically Nebraska with Chicago at the top; we Mattoonians in the Nebraska part adored Edgar because he was one of our own.
But not me. I was a senior in high school in 1992, and when I met Jim Edgar, I’d just turned 17. To me, Edgar was George H.W. Bush, and Dan Quayle, and Ronald Reagan, a Republican. I understood, sort of, what a Republican believed and didn’t think that was what I stood for, but my disdain for Edgar had nothing to do with policy, or personality, or anything about him at all. He was just the bad guy, because I was listening to a ton of music that told me guys like him were the bad guy, and a bunch of television shows and movies that told me guys like him were the bad guy. Also, MTV told me that Bill Clinton was cool, and Republicans were lame, and that, frankly, was just about as much thought as I’d put into it. I knew nothing about Jim Edgar except that I was supposed to be on the opposite side of him. I don’t even think I really understood that he was from the same place as me. He was just a white-haired OLD. The bad guy.
I had a distant cousin who was a major fundraiser for Edgar, and she was hosting an event for him on the eve of the Presidential election. (It was an off-year governor’s race, so Edgar was there more for fundraising than campaigning.) The cousin was close to my mother and invited our whole family to the event, for free. So we all put on our nicest Sunday clothes and prepared to meet the governor of Illinois.
“I’m not shaking his hand,” I told my mom.
“Oh yes you are,” she said, grabbing me by the ear. She explained to me that it was an honor to meet the governor of your state, and that Jim Edgar was a good man, and that I was not going to embarrass her and the family. But I vowed not to stand down. I imagined what I thought my heroes would do. Kurt Cobain would spit in his face. Chuck D would shut him down. They would totally make fun of him on “Saturday Night Live.” I was on the side of the angels. History would remember me well for standing up to the pigs.
We got to the event early and took our places in a receiving line. My mom made sure to stand next to me, ready to pinch me if I acted up. Finally, Governor Edgar came into the room, and the place began to hum and titter the way it does when the famous person they’re all waiting for at last arrives. Edgar shook every hand in line and began to approach us. My mom squeezed my elbow, and then extended her hand to the governor.
“I’m Sally,” she said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sally,” Gov. Edgar said. “I’m Jim. Thank you for coming. And is this your son?”
He turned to me and extended his hand. This was my moment. I looked at him and kept my hand at my side. He paused, looked at me strangely and then smiled. This unexpected gesture — this little moment of understanding that I was a teenager, and that he knew I was being silly and he understood that and was OK with it — was enough to get me to break down. I extended my hand and said, looking down at my shoes, “I guess I’ll shake your hand.” He chuckled. “I thank you for that,” he said, and moved on down the line.
I was sweating a lot. Mom didn’t look all that mad at me, and though I would have never admitted it, I was relieved. I did notice that I was feeling a little guilty.
Jim Edgar really was a good man. He won re-election again in 1994 (in a heavily Democratic state, remember) and, because of his mostly moderate position, was incredibly popular, leaving office with an approval rate of more than 60 percent. (The Chicago Tribune wrote when he left office that “very, very few people in politics depart on such gracious terms.”) He was one of the finalists to be Bob Dole’s running mate, but ended up never running for public office again. He’d had heart problems while in office, and when he decided against running for the Illinois Senate seat in 2004, his political career essentially ended. (The seat would eventually be won by Barack Obama.) He said the reason he didn’t run was that he was giving his wife an “early Mother’s Day gift.” He has mostly popped in recent years as a reluctant pundit, a moderate in a world with few left anymore. When reached on the eve of last year’s election, he said he would not vote for Donald Trump. And for what it’s worth, the next two Illinois governors after him, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, literally spent time in prison.
But there is no way I could have known or understood any of this in high school. I just saw him as “adult” or “suit.” And you know what? Even though I was wrong about him, I’m glad I felt that way then. There is something pure and beautiful blinding about the disdain of a teenager. They are stupid, but they are righteously stupid. This makes them different from adults in that most adults are simply stupid, having long since forfeited any righteousness. Adulthood is full of complications and sacrifices and compromises; we can act like an extremist or a zealot in any direction, but deep down, we don’t really believe it. We know the world is imperfect, and that it will always be imperfect. Zealotry is, deep down, a pose.
Not for teenagers, though. When they see injustice, or they something wrong that desperately needs fixed, they are too young to be a jaded jerk about it. They don’t just have the courage of their own convictions; their convictions are everything. They think we are wrong about everything because we are wrong about everything. They are just dumb enough to think they can fix it.
And that’s what makes them so beautiful and, specifically, right now, in this moment, so goddamned important. To watch those Florida kids stick it to everybody, to shut down Marco Rubio and the NRA right there on national television, to own Bill O’Reilly on Twitter, to openly mock the President by saying, “I’ve never been so unimpressed by a person in my life.” That is such a teenager thing to say. That is blinded and disdainful and so disappointed in what they are slowly learning every adult to be. That’s why teenagers are such jerks. Because they’re not longer children, and they’re finally discovering just how unimpressive we really all are. That’s a hard thing for anyone to deal with.
The difference with these kids is not only that they are right — and they are so, so right — but that they are precisely what we need to be hearing right now. These horrific school shootings are a problem that we adults have proven unable, or even unwilling, to solve. These kids are looking at us, realizing, “Oh, god, adults totally suck” and letting us know how much they suck. They have pushed us closer to action at any other time because they have no use for our usual compromises and pointless gestures and endless games. We suck. So they tell us we suck. They are right. And they might finally be getting something done. Teenagers are not always right about the targets of their disdain. I surely wasn’t. But when they are, they are so, so right. They’re telling us what we’ve screwed up. That we screwed it up isn’t their fault; it’s ours. Someday, someday soon, they’ll be adults, and will have to deal with the ugly, complex, impossible real world that we all have to deal with. Right now, they’re just flipping us all off and demanding that the world be a better place. Thank God somebody’s trying to.