Introduction: Inspiration for the five Libby speaks stories
In 1948, Giovanni Guareschi published his first volume in a series of charming Don Camillo stories. The series has three recurring characters.
Don Camillo is the priest of the town’s church. He is easily provoked, sometimes belligerent, but fundamentally a well-intentioned, God-fearing man.
The town’s communist mayor, Peppone, is easily provoked, sometimes belligerent, arguably decent, but hardly God-fearing. Don Camillo and he clash in every story.
The third character is Christ on the cross in Don Camillo’s church. Don Camillo often consults him, and they have a warm, but sometimes fractious, relationship.
The Don Camillo and Peppone characters represent the two major forces determined to win over Italy in the wake of the devastation of World War II. What strikes me is the relative even-handedness with which Guareschi treats both figures. America’s internal divisions today may actually be less severe than those in Italy at that time.
In my twenty-first century American homage to the Don Camillo stories, which I wrote in 2017 and have now revised, two flawed politicians from the two major parties engage each other. Max Morano is a Republican City Council Member, and Gavin Kane is a Democratic counterpart. I aim to do their points of view justice, though not necessarily the characters themselves.
Gavin Kane regularly consults Libby, a smartphone-like device that embodies the Constitution. We speak of a “living Constitution,” and that’s exactly what Libby is. Through her, I hope to suggest how the United States Constitution informs contemporary issues—at any rate, the issues of 2017 that spill over into today.
Note: Although both Morano and Kane are Twitter addicts, they’re emoji-challenged. They don’t use any. They also don’t honor the old 140-character rule, but somehow their tweets get through anyway.
The Homeless Problem
Gavin Kane was a Democratic member of the newly Democratic majority city council. His colleagues warned him against inflammatory tweets.
“We’re in charge now,” they said. “It was one thing to throw T-bombs when we were in the minority and couldn’t do anything else. Now we have to govern.”
But Gavin was a Twitter addict and hadn’t ridden into office on promises of calm deliberation. Ensconced in his district office, the hum of phone conversations just outside his closed door, he woke up his smartphone and tweeted, “Republican Max Morano wants the homeless to disappear. Intern them? Concentration camps, anyone?”
* * *
Max Morano, leader of the Council’s now Republican minority, himself no shrinking violet, was a fellow Twitter addict. Turning to his own smartphone, he replied: “Shame on Democrat Gavin Kane for playing the Hitler card. Wants to destabilize our city with homeless shelters, no matter harm to communities.”
Knowing the soft-headed bean pole would reply in moments, Max stood to look out the window. Not exactly richest one percent territory out there: a discount clothing outlet, a chain jewelry store, and, most decrepit of all, that gas station at the corner. Such a humid, drizzly day. He was glad he wasn’t out in it.
Turning back to his smartphone, he saw Kane’s reply had arrived: “News to civilized world—Max Morano says Hitler humanitarian.”
* * *
Four blocks away on the same street, it was Gavin Kane’s turn to grin. Too pleased with himself to settle to anything else, and knowing Morano would have a comeback any moment, he, too, was gazing out to the street. He wished there were more customers going into the department store diagonally opposite. He and his fellow Democrats had lured the chain to this location when they’d last been in power six years ago, and he worried it wouldn’t stay much longer without a change in fortune in his district. A good sign was that people were flowing in and out of the hamburger joint and the electronics store. The chain pharmacy, too.
Then Max Morano’s return lob landed: “Neighborhoods are about neighbors, not strangers.”
Self-righteous prick. Gavin pictured the fat, forty-something Morano bulging over his smartphone just waiting for Gavin’s next salvo. Why make him wait? He typed, “Homeless people have rights, too,” and clicked send.
That set off a rapid exchange:
Morano: “Read the Constitution. Nothing about homeless people.”
Kane: “What about rights to privacy, to travel, not to be arrested for sleeping in public when there aren’t enough shelters.”
Morano: “Democrat Gavin Kane reveals how much liberals distort our cherished Constitution.”
Kane: “Out-of-touch Republican Max Morano thinks Constitution written in stone. News flash—it was the foundation, not the house.”
Gavin knew for a fact the U.S. Constitution was alive and kicking, and that it lived in many forms. One of those forms was Libby. From his jacket’s inside pocket, he pulled out his wallet-sized electronic talking United States Constitution with the image of Lady Liberty at the top.
“Libby,” he said to her, “how do I stop that greasy bastard Max Morano from misinterpreting you?”
She replied, “You’re forgetting the First Amendment. You used it like a club when you Democrats were in the wilderness.”
“I want him to stop misleading the public.”
“What is freedom of speech if not the freedom to mislead?”
The screen dimmed and Libby went silent.
“Okay, I apologize,” he said. “I spoke out of turn.”
The screen refreshed. “I respect your right to speak out of turn.”
“I’ll try to be more diplomatic. How do I stop Max Morano from spouting false claims about you?”
“Sure his claims are false? Sounds to me like a point of view.”
“Not all points of view are created equal.”
“I agree, but the First Amendment says all speech is.”
“Morano claims we can’t put shelters in gentrifying neighborhoods because they’re disruptive, so the burden for helping the least fortunate among us falls once again on poor people and minorities. Meanwhile, we have thousands of people living in inhumane conditions.”
“Great speech,” Libby said. “What’s your Constitution question?”
“Well, don’t homeless people have rights?”
“Reason from my premises, as you did already with that list you sent Council Member Morano—rights to privacy, travel, etc.”
“You refuse to give me a straight answer?”
The screen stayed lit, but Libby said nothing.
“We can’t pretend homeless people don’t exist,” Gavin persisted. “We can’t just write them off.”
“Then say that,” Libby said.
“He’s already tweeted he finds nothing about this in the Constitution, and you won’t help.”
“I’m giving you all the help you need. Maybe he’ll listen better if you stop with the insults.”
“And maybe pigs will fly.”
The screen dimmed.
Libby was such a control freak. Gavin almost threw the device across the room. She’d said all she was going to, and it wasn’t enough.
* * *
Back at Republican Max Morano’s HQ, a knock on the door heralded Irma Jansen, his chief of staff.
“Just in time for your tweet war with Kane,” she said, “we have a homeless gentleman here who looks in a bad way.”
Max frowned. “What can we do for him?”
“He’s old for his age and exhausted. Probably psychiatric problems, too. I had Clarence take him to the bathroom to clean up, but he needs a shower and a change of clothes.”
“And we need him out of here so he doesn’t scare away other constituents.” Max had almost said “constituents who vote,” but he had the presence of mind not to upset his chief of staff more than she already was.
He asked, “Why your interest in this guy? I mean, other than he’s here and now he’s our problem?”
“Not that it makes a difference, but he’s well-spoken, educated. Something went wrong in his life. That’s all we know.”
“There but for fortune…” Max mused. His back to the window, he spread his arms out to the sides and rested his palms on the window sill as he stared down at the floor, deep in thought. Then he looked up. “Have Clarence escort him around to the nearest shelter. Where is it?”
“The Sutton Street Mission is open twenty-four hours a day. I just checked.”
“Tell Clarence to ask if they can give him the help he needs or if they’ll refer him somewhere. Whatever happens, make sure Kane doesn’t find out what we’re up to.”
* * *
Responding to Max Morano’s potshot about neighbors and strangers, Gavin typed: “America has always welcomed strangers. Strangers turn into friends and neighbors.”
Several minutes elapsed, but Max Morano didn’t reply. Back at the window but now looking out at nothing, Gavin felt that by not replying, Morano had somehow won. Why, he asked himself. Because, by staying silent, Morano had let Gavin’s last tweet stand for the trivial thing it was.
Morano was a mindless moron, but maybe his heart was made up of more elements than just lead. Even he must want a solution to the homeless problem, one way or the other.
Gavin silently addressed Libby: Why are you always demanding a higher standard of me than my opponents?
No reply. Not even a glimmer of light.
“Tina,” he yelled to his chief of staff, her desk just outside his door.
Tina Millette opened his door and said, “Yes, Massa,” in that passive-aggressive, black-mocking-black-stereotype way she had when he issued imperious commands.
He refused to back down. “Get me that moron Morano’s phone number.”
“Coming up, your highness.”
Moments later an email from Tina arrived in his inbox. “Here you go. AGAIN! This time keep it safe, where you can find it.”
Gavin cursed. Why couldn’t his chief of staff retrieve a phone number without hectoring him?
But before he could dial, the phone rang in his hand.
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