From Reagan to Obama, Dad taught me that patriotism transcends partisanship.
Late in the afternoon, one of us – let’s be honest, it was my little sister – started the most epic brawl in the history of Estrin family vacations.
Allison was five. I was seven. We were sightseeing in Washington, D.C., and the two of us came to blows right in front of the U.S. Constitution.
Allison yelled something like, “I’m going to bite your face off,” balled her pudgy hand into a tiny fist and whacked me in the jaw. I grabbed Allison by the lapels of her coat and slammed her against the thick glass that protects our nation’s founding document. The walls of the National Archives echoed with my war cry – a juvenile, piercing arghhhhhh!
Mom froze, her face turned pale. She was the closest adult, but a police officer got to us first. He grabbed us by our collars and yanked us apart. He held Allison and me aloft, our feet dangling just above the floor. We were busted. It was all her fault.
Every four years growing up, my family spent the winter holidays in Washington, D.C. First, Dad would fly out for meetings the week after the election. Around Thanksgiving, he’d know if he’d won the job to provide the sound and communications for the Presidential Inauguration. The gig – no job was ever permanent in my father’s profession – included the swearing-in ceremony, a parade through the streets of the capital, and about a dozen balls. It was a big job, so on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Dad would leave Los Angeles for Washington, D.C. and move into a double-adjoining room in the Hyatt Hotel on Capitol Hill until late January. The year of our own private Constitutional showdown was the first year we were old enough to tag along – 1984, Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration.
“Washington, D.C. has the finest museums in the country,” Mom told us as we got ready for our vacation. “The finest museums.”
Weren’t museums for school trips? Mom was a teacher, and therefore hell bent on turning our nation’s capital into a living classroom. How come we couldn’t take a normal family vacation, we wondered?
I explained to Mom and Dad that our friends from elementary school were going to far-out places like Maui, where Santa arrived hanging ten on a surfboard and the locals decorated palm trees with jingle bells. I explained how my friend Greg and his family drove up to Lake Tahoe to see snow. Real snow!
“We’ve never seen snow!” Allison shouted.
Allison was getting off topic, so I brought the argument home.
“The best hot cocoa is in Tahoe,” I pleaded. “Everyone says so.”
But Dad, who could usually be counted on to travel great distances for superlative desserts, would not be swayed.
“Your father is a workaholic,” Mom explained. “He doesn’t do vacations.”
It was true. Nearly all of our family “vacations” revolved around Dad’s shows. As we got older, winter in D.C. seemed both normal and, depending on the political climate, cool. But to Allison and me, Reagan stunk. Our elementary school in Los Angeles had bucked the national trend by voting overwhelmingly for Walter Mondale in a mock election.
“I want you two to see history,” Dad explained. “Not many kids get an opportunity like this.”
Ostensibly, we signed on to witness the peaceful transfer of power. But the real draw for Allison and me was the fact that we’d be able to skip the first two weeks of the spring semester.
Mom schlepped us to one historic site after the next. We visited Capitol Hill, where Mom explained the virtue of checks and balances, and we took note of the fact that Congress had an amazing vacation schedule. At the White House, Mom explained that anyone could be President, even an actor. Then Allison asked if an actress could do the job, and our tour guide laughed. We spent days exploring the Smithsonian museums, where we learned about America’s greatest triumphs and darkest moments. At the Air & Space Museum, we marveled at the fact that our mother was older than the rocket that first took men to the moon. At The National Museum For American History, Allison argued with a grown man over whether Howdy Doody was superior to Kermit the Frog.
“Howdy Doody is just a dumb doll,” Allison said. “Kermit is a talking frog!”
The man backed down.
After a visit to the Supreme Court, Mom told me I would sit there someday. But that night at dinner, it was Allison who argued with our parents for a temporary suspension of our bedtime on the grounds that we were on vacation.
“We won’t fight over the TV,” Allison promised.
I nodded in support. Mom and Dad relented. We discovered “Saturday Night Live” in reruns, and fell madly in love with Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat character. We were getting along so well, which is why Mom couldn’t have predicted that we’d go full civil war – brother against sister – at the National Archives, in front of the U.S. Constitution.
“Do you two know what would happen if you damaged the Constitution?” Mom demanded.
“Lady, they’d go to federal prison,” the policeman said.
He chewed us out for a few more minutes. Then he switched gears to deliver a spirited civics lesson. It felt like we were in a Frank Capra movie starring Dirty Harry.
“I’m letting you two go,” the policeman warned, “because I want you kids to learn what it means to live in a free country.”
Then the policeman lowered us to the ground, said something to Mom about managing her kids, and walked away. We finished the tour in silence. Inside the cab, Mom read us the riot act.
“I can’t believe you little shits,” Mom barked. “What the hell is the matter with the two of you? If Ronald Reagan found out that his sound man’s kids ruined the Constitution, your father would be out of a job, and it would be all your fault.”
Allison and I accepted our punishment – a return to our normal bedtime – without protest or the due process we had learned about visiting the home of the Constitution. For the next week, Mom dragged us around D.C., teaching us about America, and with the exception of a brief temper tantrum at a food court in The Old Post Office, we behaved.
Finally, the big day came, but cold weather canceled the inauguration parade and forced the swearing-in ceremony indoors. Allison and I didn’t get to see history, not the way Dad had planned anyway. But unbeknownst to all of us, we had kicked off a quadrennial family tradition that would last until Bill Clinton’s second inauguration, our fourth, and last, family vacation in Washington D.C.
On that first trip, Allison and I learned essential skills for these adventures – to stick up for each other and to make our own fun. Four years later, Dad put us to work on George H.W. Bush’s inauguration. I coiled cable outside in the cold—which made me decide then and there not to follow in my father’s footsteps. Allison landed a cushy gig as Dad’s production assistant, and during a rehearsal for one of the inaugural balls, she learned about a “great new group” called The Beach Boys, a “discovery” that remains a reliable family joke decades later.
In the winter of 1992-93, I learned something about continuity and the peaceful transfer of power when, to my surprise, Dad was hired to work on the Clinton inaugural. I had no memory of a Democrat in the Oval Office, and I figured, incorrectly, that partisanship would permeate everything in the capital, right down to the sound system. Dad scored us the best seats we would ever have to witness a swearing-in ceremony, but our takeaways hardly matched the magnitude of the moment. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the fact that Bill Clinton was a few years younger than Dad; wasn’t there a law about presidents being old men? Allison, meanwhile, turned her attention to John F. Kennedy Jr., who was seated nearby; she never did get his autograph, though.
* * *
Elections in America last longer than they used to when Allison and I were kids. More than a year before the primaries, cable news began ginning up the reality television spectacle that will have its series finale at noon on January 20, 2017. The following day, I suspect, America will be cast in a spinoff series in which a man who triumphed as an unscripted celebrity will follow in the footsteps of a President who was first famous for delivering his lines. Or at least, that’s how it looks to the kids of the man who did the sound for the inaugurations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Thanks to our dad, we witnessed the peaceful transfer of power. Thanks to our mom – and a police officer – we came to understand what is so special about our system of government.
“America is an idea,” the police officer explained. “It’s not perfect, but it works because we all pitch in and we all believe in the rule of law.”
The 2016 election hit Allison and me hard, in ways both personal and political. Dad died a few months before the first primary. We watched, helpless, as a toxic campaign barreled out of control and a national nightmare steamrolled through our grief.
After the last presidential debate – a gig Dad had done since 1988 – in October, Allison changed her email signature to read “sent from a nasty woman.” I turned to books like Eric Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. I wanted to know more about the rise of fascism, not because I believed, as many have claimed, that Trump is like Hitler, but because I wanted to know how a seemingly decent nation could fall for evil. Mostly, however, Allison and I assured ourselves that a man like Trump couldn’t be President because he just didn’t have the dignity and decency of Republicans and Democrats our father had worked for.
Then Donald Trump won.
The day after the election, my wife Christina was so depressed she put up our Christmas tree. “I need some joy right now,” she said.
My thoughts turned to the holidays and, quite naturally, to Washington, D.C. For days, I agonized over this hypothetical: if Dad were alive, would he do Trump’s inauguration? On the one hand, Dad loathed men who trade in hate. On the other hand, Dad always put his job above politics; to him, the sound of the President’s voice was as important as the oath the incoming President took to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
I couldn’t bring myself to say it, not even to Allison, but a part of me was glad that Dad was dead. It was the part of me that wouldn’t have been able to stomach our father working for Trump, and the part of me that knew I could never have expected Dad to skip history.
Just before Thanksgiving, around the time our dad would have been in Washington, D.C. trying to secure his eighth inauguration, Allison called.
“I’m going to the march in Washington,” she said. “Will you and Christina come?”
A thought occurred to me, one that was both beautiful and frightening. On January 21, 2017, Donald J. Trump will be a federal employee. That makes me and 300-million-plus Americans his boss.
In a democracy, the people are supposed to have a say. In practice, the people who show up are most likely to be heard.
“We’re going to D.C.,” I explained to Mom, “because I want to tell our President what I expect of him.”
Donald Trump’s inauguration will be our fifth D.C. vacation, but our first without our parents. This time, instead of witnessing history, Allison and I intend to help make it. We will march, something we’ve never done as a family. But to keep up a family tradition, we’ll also do some sightseeing, because as Mom reminded me, there’s a new Smithsonian dedicated to African American history, and it’s supposed to be fantastic.
“You better not get us into trouble,” I teased Allison.
“Me? You started it!”