David Rakoff, who died August 9 at age 47, was funny and smart about many things, including politics in America. “George W. Bush made me want to become an American,” he said in our radio interview in November 2005.
When I asked him why, he explained, “He frankly scared the hell out of me. I’d lived in New York City for twenty-three years, and I always felt pretty safe, having just a green card. I am a native of Canada. But with Bush things seemed scary”—especially for residents who were not citizens.
So he decided to apply to become a citizen. How hard was it? “You can download the application. Even I know how to do that. If you’re industrious, you can finish it in a day or two. It took me longer because two things held me up.
“One of the questions was ‘Are you a male who lived in the US at any time between your eighteenth and twenty-sixth birthdays in any status except as a lawful non-immigrant?’ It took me four months to parse the grammar of that. Then I realized the answer is ‘no.’
“Then I got held up on the question of whether I would bear arms for the United States. I have a problem with bearing arms for anybody. Ultimately I checked ‘yes.’ There are some instances where it is not inconceivable. But they’re never going to call me. I’m 41, I have to take a thyroid pill every day.”
His book Don’t Get Too Comfortable had just been published, where he had written about becoming a citizen.
Then came the citizenship interview: “The asked me four questions—one was ‘Who takes over when the president dies?’ I got a little wise-ass-y and answered ‘Dick Cheney, God help us,’ and that got a little bit of a smile from her—we were in New York City.”
Finally there was the swearing in ceremony. “A few weeks later I had to schlep out to Hempstead, Long Island, to a huge auditorium where hundreds of people were sworn in. We said the Pledge of Allegiance, and we sang the national anthem. And I cried.”
Why? “It felt like a big intense thing, like a severing of where I had come from. It made me feel a little sad and a little ungrateful that I had chosen to do this. I felt a little lonely and a little cut off from my family.”
I said “You were surrounded by people who had come from all over the world, people who now were full of hope.” “Yes,” he replied, “and none of them were crying. They were fine. It was just the drama queen who was crying.”
Then came voting. I asked him, “How’s that going?” (This was 2005, Bush had been elected to a second term.) “Not so well!” he said. “Everyone I vote for never wins. Welcome to America.”
“But I enjoy voting,” he added. “I had been paying taxes and going on demos, but now I was really participating. I comfort myself with the notion that this too shall pass. It’s not always going to be like this.”