I don’t know if you remember me, but I am an Earth Ball. An Earth Ball is a giant inflatable ball, also called a cage ball, which can usually be found in the corner of a junior-high-school locker room. My junior high is in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland. On rainy days, kids stay inside and bat me around. It’s a living. It’s a life.
My last letter concerned the radio and television host Sean Hannity. At that time, I listened to Sean Hannity’s show almost every day, because Coach Parker kept the radio tuned to talk. But Coach Parker is on vacation and Coach Sullavan, who is heading up the summer shift, likes to listen to classic rock. Generally, it’s familiar and comforting, but every once in a while a song is too memorable. The most recent one was “Taking Care of Business.” After two days of it echoing around in my sphere, the only business I wanted to take care of was breaking the radio. That’s not my joke—Coach Sullavan said it to Mike Weston, the high-school kid who is also here for the summer. The only business I wanted to take care of was breaking the radio: Man, that’s funny.
At any rate, it has been a Hannity-free summer. Then the other day a strut on an overhead light fixture broke. Coach Sullavan said that he didn’t know how it happened, but the truth is that he was trying to balance a field-hockey stick on the tip of his nose and Mike Weston swatted it away. They ended up play-fighting and, well, goodbye light-fixture strut, hello handyman. This would be nothing more than a story about roughhousing if it weren’t for the fact that the handyman, Donny, set up a little radio next to him and tuned it to The Sean Hannity Show so that he could listen while he worked.
I am not sure that I can describe the effect of hearing Sean Hannity’s voice again. It was like reuniting with an old friend whose main personality trait is that he produces, through the use of logical distortion, selective information, and preposterous rhetoric, a climate of toxic political divisiveness. Sean Hannity played his theme music. He reminded his audience that there were only 76 days left until a vital midterm election. He pledged to be honest. I listened with a mix of interest and disgust and watched Donny fiddle with the strut.
Then Sean Hannity mentioned that he had an exposé. He had, he said, evidence of Bill Clinton, the former president, “hanging out with a guy who uses the n-word easily.” It took me a few seconds to remember what the n-word was. Among athletic equipment, there is discrimination, certainly—I consider tennis balls ridiculous and have always admired the football—but there’s nothing exactly comparable to human racism. So I was appalled to learn that the former president of the United States would associate with a person of such low character. I waited for news of this disreputably close connection between Bill Clinton and a mysterious racist. It came about a half-hour later.
“I found this little piece in Page Six in the New York Post today,” Sean Hannity said. “‘Had a camera crew been following Bill Clinton around yesterday, it could have made a commercial boosting tourism in New York. The former president first took daughter Chelsea, brother Roger, and a nephew to Serendipity 3, which is known for its frozen hot chocolate.’” He paused. “Let’s put that aside,” he said. “Brother Roger. Let me see: Is that the same brother Roger they caught on that surveillance tape repeatedly using the n-word?”
Sean Hannity then played a tape, which did contain evidence that a man who sounded like Roger Clinton was using the n-word to describe a younger man. If the n-word were “nincompoop,” the tape would have gone like this: “Some junior-high nincompoop kicked Steve’s ass while he was trying to help his brothers out—junior high or sophomore in high school. Whatever it was, Steve had the nincompoop down. However it was, it was Steve’s fault. He had the nincompoop down, he let him up. The nincompoop blindsided him.”
After the tape, Sean Hannity returned to the radio. “Could you imagine a Republican hanging out with somebody that ever spoke like that, as such a bigot like that and a racist?” he said.
Now, look: I’m not as naive as a tennis ball. I understand that Sean Hannity’s job requires him to create false issues to distract his listeners from real issues. I understand that he is a kind of rodeo clown for the radio. He was just taking care of business, I thought to myself, and I was sorry I did, because the song came back in force, even after Donny switched off his radio and left.
But something was still bothering me. Sean Hannity had always been a character assassin, but this hit seemed especially unfair. How did Roger Clinton’s trip to Serendipity 3 in August 2006 for frozen hot chocolate have anything to do with his comments on an old surveillance tape? And how did those comments reflect upon Bill Clinton at all? The attack didn’t even seem worthy of Sean Hannity, which is like saying that a particular load of excrement is not worthy of a toilet.
I could reason that far, but no further. That’s why I am thankful for Sally. Sally is the vending machine in the locker room that dispenses juice and milk to the students. There was talk of soda, but the parents said no. Sally is a female machine, which would probably embarrass the boys if they knew. Sally is also a genius. She knows 20 languages, can multiply big numbers together, and can even travel through the power plug and the wires in the walls to reach the computer in Coach’s office. That gives her information about everything: planets and plutons, philosophy, Kabbalah. She’s a little weaker on the classic rock, but I have been teaching her this summer. Sally noticed that I was quiet after Donny left. “Are you bothered by what Sean Hannity said about Bill Clinton?” she said. She was right on the money; like I said, she’s a genius. “Well,” she said, “I have a little story for you.” Then she said nothing. For a genius, she’s pretty theatrical. Two entire minutes passed in silence.
Then she said, “There is a man named Hal Turner.” Hal Turner, she said, was a Republican activist in New Jersey who became a right-wing paranoid and hatemonger. He celebrated the deaths of black people, whom he called “Savage Negroes,” and said that illegal immigrants should be murdered. Roger Clinton may have mouthed off about a fight with a black kid; Hal Turner endorsed the wholesale destruction of minority races. Bill Clinton could never have taken him for frozen hot chocolate. But Bill Clinton didn’t associate with him. Sean Hannity did. Hal Turner used to be a regular caller to The Sean Hannity Show. When he stopped calling in, Sean Hannity spoke to Hal Turner off the air and tried to help him overcome a drug problem. He even invited him to the set of his television show. Now I was really confused. On the one hand, loyalty is a good quality. People should not abandon their troubled acquaintances. On the other hand …
Sally made a mechanical noise of interruption. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “Loyalty is a good quality, but hypocrisy isn’t. Do you know that the ancient Greek word hypokritēs means stage actor? Do you think a radio is a kind of stage? Could someone affect false emotions and morals on the radio?”
Sally is so smart. She paused for two more minutes. Talk about a stage actor. “Maybe he’s finally aware that his party and his candidate are increasingly unpopular, and he is desperate to gain some leverage, even if it means that he has to tar Bill Clinton with the brush of racism for spending time with his own brother.” I wanted to hear more, but Sally and I had to stop talking because Mike Weston came by and wanted fruit punch from her.
In a few weeks the school year starts up again. Coach Parker will be back, and maybe I’ll start hearing more Hannity. Right now, Sally and I are listening to “Bell Bottom Blues” on the radio. Do you know that song? There is a story behind it, which Coach Sullavan told Mike Weston last week, and which I want to tell Sally. Eric Clapton, the singer and guitarist who made the song, was in love with his best friend’s wife. He was tormented by his feelings for years. That’s how he knew they were real. He asked her to be with him, but she wouldn’t have him. He became terrified that he would never be with her. It shook him to his foundation. But he didn’t fight with her, or call her out, or make an aggressive argument, or break a strut on an overhead light in her house. It wasn’t in his nature. Instead, he just pined and experienced intense emotional pain. At one point in the song, he says, “I don’t want to fade away. / Give me one more day, please.” Man, that’s sad.