The Last of the Compassionate Conservatives

My dad, in all his glory.

Don’t listen to me.  I just blew up Thanksgiving.  I told my family in Wisconsin that their vote destroyed the moral fabric of our country.”   I’m paraphrasing a text from a friend shortly after the election.  Although my own personal associations have remained largely intact, I’ve heard so many stories about family relationships strained, some irreparably so.

Lately, I’ve found myself reflecting on how my parents’ operated in the political climate of my formative years, the ’70s and early ’80s.   With family, they generally adopted that old adage of “never discuss politics, sex or religion.” Though I don’t really abide by this approach, I’m beginning to see its’ merits.  Today, the words “Republican” or “Democrat”seem to infer less of a party affiliation and more of a character assessment.   I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. Political leanings were not how my parents’ evaluated people. Are you true to your word? Are you respectful? Unless you violated those basic tenets (or messed with one of their kids), you were fine.

My dad was always very open about his political proclivities, and it would have been so interesting to hear what he would say about current events. Unfortunately, he passed away ten years ago last fall, at the too-young age of 69.   Howie was a pragmatic guy and had always made it very clear that he did not want any of the standard death accoutrements.   Pricey coffins, wakes, obituaries, etc. He wanted none of it. “Just put me in a box and be done with it.” “I’ll be dead – it won’t matter!” We respected his wishes and honored him in a way he would have liked. Just myself, my mom and brother, gathered at the mortuary to say a final goodbye and have a hearty cry. Then he went off to be cremated and we went to lunch at Applebee’s. Trust me, he would have heartily approved.

My father supported Ronald Reagan, loved John Wayne, and was a longtime NRA member.   He was born and raised in New York City, but lamented that he was from the wrong part of the country – and the wrong century. He liked the old west, and had a gun collection that suggested as much (kept safe and secure away from me and my brother). Occasionally, he would take them out for show.   I have a distinct memory of a pearl handled pistol, in a red velvet lined case.   He wasn’t a hunter. In fact, I only have one recollection of him actually using a gun.   A bat flew into my pink princess bedroom when I was little. I screamed, the bat flew out, landed on my mom’s pearly white dining room drapes. Dad took care of it with a bb gun. It’s what a wanna-be old west guy did in 1970s suburbia, when up against a critter.

Howie was fiscally prudent, only spending what he could afford. When we were young, he tried to impart on my brother and I how hard he worked to provide for us: charging us a fee every time we left a light on. Credit was used in a planned fashion and paid off accordingly.   But life was enjoyed nevertheless. We didn’t take a lot of fancy vacations – I didn’t travel by plane until I was 19 – but my parents’ never skimped on the day-to-day pleasures. My husband can blame them for my love of fine dining.

Dad was big fan of pulling your own weight, so he didn’t like the Welfare system, feeling it was abused by those not truly in need.   However, he was an avid contributor to social causes that mattered to him. Whenever we had old furniture or household items to give away, he took the time to find out how to donate them to women’s shelters – long before the Internet made it easy to do this.

Compared to his childhood, mine was easy, but certain things he insisted I had to earn. He wouldn’t let me get my drivers license until I could drive a stick shift and explain to him why an oil change was important. He taught me to drive on his 1974 Ford pick-up truck. It had a manual transmission, and no power steering or power breaks. To improve my shifting prowess, he would take me on hills during rush hour traffic. My teenage self found this highly annoying, but I treasure having this skill now.

He understood, in theory, the need for Affirmative Action, but was justifiably ambivalent about it. He didn’t go to college, but started his career in the mailroom at a major US corporation, eventually working his way up to a management position. By the time he retired some 30 years later, his successor needed an MBA for the job. When other parents in our upper middle class town would ask dad where he went to college, he would smirk and say “the school of hard knocks.” However, when I finally decided to go to college, you’d never seen someone so proud. He quite literally ran into the other room to get the checkbook.

While I think dad mainly voted Republican, he briefly became disillusioned with the GOP, and actually voted for Bill Clinton in his first term.   However, my father was hopelessly devoted to my mother and the concept of fidelity (his favorite occasions were Valentines Day and his wedding anniversary, and he took great joy in filling my mom’s jewelry box with gifts). Clinton’s many peccadillos cost him my father’s respect, effectively ending his foray into democratic presidential terrain.

He was a fervent believer that women should be treated equally and respectfully. He explained the Equal Rights Amendment to me and was a big supporter of it.  When he went into management, he took a lot of pride in being able to promote women. He was also a gentleman, and sometimes this got him in trouble. He came home one day puzzled about a woman whom he had held the door open for.   She got mad, claimed it was sexist.   He thought that was ridiculous, but he was careful going forward.

He was a proponent of the death penalty and also strongly pro-choice. Watching TV one night with my parents, I was around 11 years old when I first heard the term “abortion”. My father was the one who explained to me what it meant, answering me honestly, like always.  To him, I think he viewed it as future knowledge I might need, if I were to be truly in control of my life.

He was raised in the Jewish faith, but was disdainful of organized religion. His life experiences exposed him to more of the hypocrisy versus the good of it. He could never understand why people would see a priest for marriage counseling. He used to say, “why would I get relationship advice from a man who wears a dress and has never had sex?” Before the world became politically correct, this was funny.

Howie was not politically active, but his opinions certainly influenced me.   I voted for a Republican in my first election, less because of ideology, and more because it’s how my father voted. It seemed like a good idea at the time, in the absence of my young self giving it much serious thought.   A rational man and an all around good guy, dad was the living embodiment of the term “compassionate conservative”.   It’s why I’m so appalled when blowhard politicians use the phrase to soften their image, when their actions suggest otherwise.

I’ve been reacting a bit emotionally to the current political landscape. Some of my recent pronouncements on social media: “To me, your vote implies you are okay with racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexual assault.” “Get your head out of your ass.” Facebook has become my passive aggressive way of telling my conservative friends that, to put it mildly, I don’t agree with them.   I think my father would be amused and oddly proud of my chutzpah (albeit a cowardly form of chutzpah, given I’m sitting behind a keyboard, but still).

However, I don’t want to become the liberal equivalent of what I mock: someone who insulates themself with like minded people, and ample time to guzzle a constant stream of news that aligns with their political views.   It’s so easy to gorge myself on my own outrage, becoming so angry that I’m suddenly intolerant of any view but my own.  Going forward, I should probably consider borrowing a page from my parents’ playbook.   Am I ranting or delivering a message? Is it necessary? Is it truthful? Is it delivered respectfully?

Upon arriving home from work each day, Howie would unwind with a gin and tonic and the newspaper. Rather then relaxing him though, the news would seem to agitate him. Eventually, the gin would kick in, and the edges would soften, and with a weary smile, he’d say: “our government may be really screwed up, but it’s still the best screwed up government in the world.” I can’t be certain if he’d say this today, but I think there’s a good chance he might.  This gives me hope (perhaps misguided) that everything will be just fine.

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