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Two new political memoirs reveal how the sausage of democracy is made

Top Dem, GOP spin-meisters weigh in on Trump, Buttigieg, more

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(Book cover images via Amazon)

‘Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell’
By Tim Miller
c.2022, Harper
$26.99/259 pages

‘Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story’
By Lis Smith
c.2022, Harper
$22.39/304 pages

The lilies of the field, the Bible tells us, “neither toil nor spin.” If only, they had met Tim Miller and Lis Smith!

Miller and Smith, two top-tier spinmeisters have written memoirs. Fasten your seatbelts. These aren’t the usual tepid politico’s tales.

As you read, you’ll laugh out loud one minute. Then gulp down your go-to comfort food or libation while (literally) worrying about the fate of our democracy. 

“Next to love, the most sacred thing you can give is your labor,” James Carville says to staff and volunteers in the last days of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign in a real life Aaron Sorkin moment in the 1993 documentary “The War Room.”

Miller and Smith both saw “The War Room” when they were kids. Miller would grow up to be a Republican strategist who left the party over Trump. Smith would become a top Democratic political operative. But “The War Room” instilled in both of them a love of the public service and game of politics. 

Miller, who lives in Oakland, Calif., with his husband Tyler and their daughter Toulouse, is a former Republican political operative. He was communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign and spokesman for the Republican National Committee during Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Miller left the GOP to become a leader of the “Never Trump” movement. After calling it quits with Trump, Miller worked briefly as a consultant for Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the Trump administration. Now, Miller is an MSNBC analyst, a writer at large with “The Bulwark” and the host of “Not My Party” on Snapchat. 

The Republican Party has a history – from Ronald Reagan’s abysmal record on AIDS to Donald Trump’s transphobic policies – of being anti-queer. You’re likely wondering how Miller, as a gay man, could stomach working for the GOP.

In “Why We Did It,” Miller puts himself and some of the people who “enabled” Trump under the microscope. 

“America never would have gotten into this mess if it weren’t for me and my friends,” Miller writes, “We were the ‘normal’ Republicans.”

When Trump arrived, they didn’t take him seriously. They didn’t, “get off on the tears of immigrant children,” Miller writes. Nor would they have been caught “dead in one of those gaudy red baseball caps,” he adds.

“Why in the fuck,” Miller asks, “did the vast, vast majority of seemingly normal, decent people whom I worked with go along with the most abnormal, indecent of men?”

The first half of the memoir is Miller’s story of how he “compartmentalized” being a gay man with being an operative for the largely homophobic GOP.

Take when he worked for John McCain’s presidential campaign. Though he was gay, Miller told McCain to walk it back after McCain said “gay marriage should be allowed if there’s a ceremony kind of thing.”

In the second half of the book, Miller examines why people such as Elise Stefanik opted to “take the red pill” and work for “the great MAGA future.”

“Why We Did It” is dishy, dark, and soul-churning.

Smith, a top Democratic strategist and veteran of 20 campaigns, has worked for everyone from Claire McCaskill to Barack Obama. She was a senior communications adviser for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.

Thankfully, “Any Given Tuesday” isn’t a stuffy political memoir. It’s smart, snarky, and gossipy. Smith is James Carville in high heels.

“Any Given Tuesday” is about Smith’s life in politics intertwined with stories from her personal life.

Due to sexism, her love life was politicized. Smith became a tabloid target when she fell in love with former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, after learning of Smith’s relationship with Spitzer, fired her from her job with his administration. (Though she had worked for de Blasio’s campaign.)

You wonder if this would have happened if Smith had been a man. But Smith gets many digs at de Blasio. After her firing, de Blasio tried to win Spitzer’s political endorsement. “Both of us had tried to get in bed with Eliot,” she writes of de Blasio’s failure to win Spitzer’s backing, “but only one of us had been successful.” (Smith and Spitzer no longer have a relationship.)

Unlike Miller, Smith doesn’t have to twist herself into a compartmentalized pretzel to do her work. Like Miller, she’s hopped up on the “game” of campaigns. Though Smith doesn’t agree with everything everyone she works for believes in, she’s generally in synch with centrist Democrats.

Among the most interesting chapters of “Any Given Tuesday” are those about her work on Buttigieg’s campaign. If you’re queer or queer-friendly, even if you don’t agree with his politics, you get the historic significance of Buttigieg’s campaign.

Smith’s account of being on the road with the “Buttibus” and prepping Buttigieg for the candidates’ debates is entertaining and informative. It’s moving when Smith, a seasoned, snarky hack, comes to believe Buttigieg is “the one” — the candidate who truly would serve this country well.

In “Any Given Tuesday,” Smith reveals how the messy sausage of democracy is made. In “Why We Did It,” Miller makes even die-hard atheists pray that democracy will last.    

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New ACT UP book is part history, part memoir

‘Boy with the Bullhorn’ chronicles hard work, grief, anger

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(Book cover image courtesy of Fordham University Press)

‘Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York’ 
By Ron Goldberg
c.2022/ Fordham University Press
$36.95/512 pages

The sign above your head shows what’s going on inside.

Last night, you made the sign with a slogan, firm words, a poke to authority – and now you carry it high, yelling, marching, demanding that someone pay attention. Now. Urgently. As in the new book, “Boy with the Bullhorn” by Ron Goldberg, change is a-coming.

He’d never done anything like it before.

But how could he not get involved? Ron Goldberg had read something about ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and he heard they were holding a rally near his workplace. It was 1987, he’d never participated in anything like that before, but whispers were everywhere. He and his friends were “living under a pervasive cloud of dread.”

He “was twenty-eight years old… scared, angry, and more than a little freaked out” about AIDS, he says.

Couldn’t he at least go down and hold a sign?

That first rally led Goldberg to attend a meeting, which, like most, as he came to realize, were raucous and loud and “electric.” Because he was “living fully ‘out and proud’,” and because he realized that this was an issue “worth fighting for,” he became even more involved with ACT UP by attending larger rallies and helping with organizing and getting his fellow activists fired up. He observed as women became involved in ACT UP, too. Monday night meetings became, for Goldberg, “the most exciting place in town.”

There, he learned how politics mixed with activism, and why ACT UP tangled with the Reagan administration’s leaders. He puffed with more than just a little ownership, as other branches of ACT UP began spreading around the country. He learned from ACT UP’s founding members and he “discovered hidden talents” of his own by helping.

On his years in ACT UP, Goldberg says, “There was hard work, grief, and anger, surely, but there was also great joy.” He was “a witness. And so, I began to write.”

Let’s be honest: “Boy with the Bullhorn” is basically a history book, with a little memoir inside. Accent on the former, not so much on the latter.

Author Ron Goldberg says in his preface that Larry Kramer, who was one of ACT UP’s earliest leaders encouraged him to pull together a timeline for the organization and this book is the result of the task. It’s very detailed, in sequential order and, as one reads on, it’s quite repetitive, differing basically in location. It’s not exactly a curl-up-by-the-fire read.

Readers, however – and especially older ones who remember the AIDS crisis – won’t be able to stop scanning for Goldberg’s memories and tales of being a young man at a time when life was cautiously care-free. The memories – which also act as somewhat of a gut-wrenching collection of death-notices – are sweet, but also bittersweet.

This book is nowhere near a vacation kinda book but if you have patience, it’s worth looking twice. Take your time and you’ll get a lot from “Boy with the Bullhorn.” Rush, and it might just go over your head.

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‘Before We Were Trans’ explores a complicated history

Scholars ‘need to tread carefully and responsibly’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Seal Press)

‘Before We Were Trans’
By Kit Heyam
c.2022, Seal Press
$30/352 pages

Yes or no: before there were rockets, there were no astronauts.

No, there wasn’t a need for them without a vehicle to go where people only dreamed of going. But yes – the word “astronaut” is more than a century old. Words and labels matter, as you’ll see in “Before We Were Trans” by Kit Heyam, and time is no excuse.

On the evening of June 8, 1847, John Sullivan was apprehended by gendarmes while weaving down a sidewalk in London. Sullivan was wearing a few women’s garments, and was carrying more, all of it stolen. Because it wasn’t the first time he was arrested, he spent 10 years in an Australian penal colony for his crime.

“Is this story a part of trans history?” asks Heyam.

There aren’t enough clues to determine Sullivan’s truth, not enough “evidence that their motivation for gender nonconformity was not external, but internal.” The answer’s complicated by the fact that “transgender” wasn’t even a word during Sullivan’s time. Presumably, Sullivan was white but even so, we must also consider “that the way we experience and understand gender is inextricable from race.”

Surely, then, Njinga Mbande, the king of Ndongo, can be considered trans; they were assigned female at birth but presented themselves as king, as did Hatshepsut of Egypt. In precolonial Nigeria, the Ekwe people were gender-fluid, to ensure that there was a male in the household. Do political and social reasons fit the definition of trans?

In England, it was once believed that to dress like the opposite sex was to become that gender. In prison camps during World War I, men participated in plays to ease the boredom, and some ultimately lived permanently as women. Early history shows many examples of people living as “both.” Were they trans or not?

Says Heyam, “historians need to tread carefully and responsibly when we talk about the histories of people who blur the boundaries between intersex and trans.”

Moreover, can we allow that there’s probably some “overlap”?

The answer to that could depend on your current situation and mindset. Absolutely, author Kit Heyam dangles their own opinion throughout this book but “Before We Were Trans” doesn’t seem to solve the riddle.

Judging by the narrative here, though, it’s possible that it may be forever unsolvable. There’s a lot to untangle, often in the form of partially recorded tales that hark back to antiquity and that are shaky with a lack of knowable details. Even Heyam seems to admit sometimes that their thoughts are best guesses.

And yet, that tangle can leave readers with so much to think about, when it comes to gender. Ancient attitudes toward trans people – whether they were, indeed, trans or acted as such for reasons other than gender – absolutely serve as brain fodder.

This is not a quick-breezy read; in fact, there are times when you may feel as though you need a cheat-sheet to follow similar-sounding names. Even so, if you take your time with it, “Before We Were Trans” may put you over the moon.

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Books

‘Knocking Myself Up’ a hilarious, hopeful read

Queer writer Michelle Tea reveals struggle to get pregnant in memoir

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(Book cover image courtesy of Dey Street)

 ‘Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility’
By Michelle Tea
c.2022, Dey Street
$28.99/304 pages

Most books, no matter how fab, can be put down. For meals, naps, dancing, binge-watching – sex.

This isn’t how it goes with queer writer Michelle Tea’s new book “Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility.” Once you start it, everything else will stop until you finish it. Then, you’ll still be inhaling Tea’s captivating memoir.

Recently on YouTube, I came across the mid-century TV sitcom “Leave It to Beaver.” The show featured an archetypal 1950s family – the Cleavers: white, middle-class, straight – with a Dad (Ward) who worked at “the office,” Mom (June), a homemaker, and two sons – Wally and Theodore (a.k.a. Beaver). They lived in a house with an immaculate lawn and a white picket fence.

This isn’t to dis the Cleavers, who were beloved by many Boomers (queer and non-queer). R.I.P., Tony Dow! (Dow, who played Wally, died last month.)

But June Cleaver, the epitome of white, hetero, middle-class motherhood, would be thunderstruck by  “Knocking Myself Up.”

After being childless, Tea, 40, and living in San Francisco, single, with no health insurance, after much soul-searching, decided to have a child.

From the first word – Tea sucks us into her story.

“Hello,” Tea writes, “This is your narrator, Michelle Tea.”

 “I’m about to bring you into my inner world,” Tea continues, “during a period of time when that space was as wild, messy, hopeful, dizzy, tragic, terrifying and open-hearted as any era I’ve ever lived.”

Tea has become iconic for her queer wit, intelligence and searing interrogation of herself, the people in her life and the culture.

Tea, born in 1971 in Chelsea, Mass., grew up in a working-class background. She struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness (which ran in her family).

Her family members aren’t monsters. Tea’s mother and sister love her. But growing up for her wasn’t a sitcom odyssey.

Her stepfather copped to spying on her (in her bedroom – in the bathroom) through a hole in the wall.

Tea became a scribe when she was in second grade and, since then, has never stopped writing.

She’s the author of more than 12 books, including the cult classic “Valencia,” the brilliant essay collection “Against Memoir” and the speculative memoir “Black Wave.”

Tea has received awards from the Guggenheim, Lambda Literary and Rona Jaffe foundations; Pen/America; and other distinguished institutions. Along with being a prolific writer, Tea has been an intrepid cultural interventionist.

She started Drag Queen Story Hour, co-created the Sister Spit queer literary performance tours, and was the founding director of RADAR Productions, a Bay Area literary organization for more than a decade.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of, what Tea’s bio calls, her “cultural interventions.”

Tea has helmed the imprints Sister Spit Books at City Lights Publishers and Amethyst Editions at the Feminist Press. Tea produces and hosts the Your Magic podcast where she reads tarot cards for Roxanne Gay and other artists.

But Tea’s dazzling  literary status doesn’t prevent her from running into obstacles when she tries to become pregnant and give birth. Professional cred is no match against heteronormality.

Opting to have a baby is a rollicking ride no matter who you are, Tea writes. “You’re setting out to conjure a life,” she adds, “and in the process, deeply unsettle your own.”

But having a child is a hell of a lot more unsettling, Tea discovers, if you’re queer, single and have no health insurance — even if you live in San Francisco (the epicenter of queerness).

Tea finds that fertility clinics are set up for straight people.

During her quest to become pregnant, she finds love and marries Orson, who’s nonbinary. Yet clinic forms and personnel refer to Orson as her “husband.” Because they’re queer, Tea and Orson (unlike straight couples) are required to talk to a mental health professional.

Tea worries that even though she’s married, she’ll have to legally adopt her baby.

Despite Tea’s no-holds-barred stories of these difficulties, “Knocking Myself UP” is far from a downer.

It features a glam drag queen sperm donor, a witch, Tea’s loving sister and tons of info on everything from ovulation to implantation.

“Knocking Myself Up” is a hilarious, compelling, hopeful read at a time when hope is scarce as gold and fleeting as the wind.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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