40 Years Later
I’m on the road in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio today, but I could not help thinking about the person who perhaps more than anyone else inspired my love of politics.
It was 40 years ago today that my dad died suddenly, just days before the 1968 election. If it seems odd to mention an event like that in the same sentence as an election, you didn’t know my dad. He and I started talking about politics from the time I was eight years old -- and starting arguing about politics from the time I was about 12. It was then I started questioning conservative ideas. My dad reacted not with horror but with interest, and we began to hash things out. You could say we had a Crossfire thing going long before it was on television. I often assumed a position several clicks to the left of where I actually stood, and my dad would do the same on the right. When I was 13, he honored my request for a subscription to The New Republic, which gave me more talking points.
Whenever an “8” year rolls around on the calendar, there’s always talk about the divisiveness of 1968. The funny thing is that my dad and I actually came together on politics that year, because both of us had come to oppose the Vietnam War -- my dad the conservative turning against it before I did. I always think of 1968 as the year we lost three great Americans: Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and my father.
I reprint below the column I wrote about him ten years ago. (By the way, my late mom was also very shrewd about politics. But I’m sure she’d approve of my honoring my dad today.) I still cherish the responses to this column that I got from people with diverse political commitments, including politicians from both parties. One member of Congress, echoing a number of the people who called or wrote, said: “I had exactly the same relationship with my dad.”
Of course, I wish my dad could have lived much longer -- could have met my wife and his grandchildren. And it would be great if he were still around so we could discuss -- and maybe even argue about -- the astonishing campaign of 2008. But mostly, I just feel very lucky to have had him as a dad, and I’m grateful he taught me that you can feel passionately about politics, argue vigorously, and still admire (and in some cases even love) people with whom you devoutly disagree.
Lessons From My Dad
By E. J. Dionne Jr.
June 05, 1998
BOSTON -- I can still remember sitting in the living room with my dad, an ardent conservative, transfixed as an actor named Ronald Reagan put on a magnificent oratorical show on behalf of Barry Goldwater toward the end of the 1964 campaign.
We loved Goldwater, knew he was going down, but realized that Ronald Reagan would achieve what Goldwater couldn't. Millions of conservatives sitting in their own living rooms reached the same conclusion at the same moment.
The combination of Barry Goldwater's obituaries and the memorial essays honoring Robert Kennedy, who died 30 years ago this month, was strangely personal for me. I didn't know either man, but both made me think a great deal about my father, who also died 30 years ago this year.
The Goldwater campaign, which took place when I was 12, and the turmoil of 1968, the year I turned 16, marked the beginning and the premature end of an intense political dialogue between my father and me during which he thoroughly succeeded in passing along his passionate love for American politics.
There was passion in our many arguments but never hostility, which is why the current hate-your-enemy approach to politics strikes me as strange. My dad saw debate, even between father and son, as an occasion for mutual education. He was shrewd in this, I've thought in retrospect. Our friendly confrontations were the antithesis of the generation gap everyone wrote about back then. We were on the same side even when we disagreed.
My dad was not a politician or a journalist. He was a dentist who loved his work. Politics and the reading of newspapers were avocations he pursued, as he did all his avocations, with great enthusiasm.
His hero was Robert Taft, the opponent of American intervention in World War II. Though he enlisted in the Army two weeks after Pearl Harbor, my dad was skeptical of all wars. He hated socialized medicine but feared it would come because he thought his beloved medical profession might prove too greedy. He did his part by starting a free dental clinic for poor kids.
It took courage for my father to be a Republican in our city of Fall River, Mass., a devoutly New Deal mill town. He voted against Roosevelt four times but said had he been unemployed during the Depression he probably would have voted for him too.
During the Goldwater campaign, my dad and I had no doubts: Extremism in defense of liberty was no vice. But Goldwater's powerful speeches about freedom were subversive, even of Goldwaterism. Goldwater said civil rights laws represented a violation of property rights. Yet the more you thought about the freedom Goldwater spoke of so eloquently, the more you wondered what liberty meant to black people oppressed by a color line. This problem was at the heart of some of the earliest debates my dad encouraged.
On Vietnam, our family was entirely atypical: My dad turned against the war long before I did. He disliked intervention and didn't want his son to die overseas in a war that seemed futile. I eventually came around to my dad's view.
In 1968, Gene McCarthy appealed to something in us both (he shared our first and middle names, after all). And there was Robert Kennedy's campaign. My best friend from high school and I were watching the late returns from the California primary that night when Kennedy promised to go on to Chicago and win there. Then he was killed. His death shook me, changing my way of looking at the world. His passion for the poor and his ability to create shared political ground between black and white working-class people still loom as remarkable gifts all these years later.
The last big political argument my dad and I engaged in found us as allies. It was the summer of 1968, during the Democratic Convention, and we were visiting my dad's best World War II buddy. My father and I spoke passionately in favor of the Vietnam peace plank, to general dissent as I recall.
We were both for Nixon that fall. We both wanted change. I now think we were wrong, less because of Watergate than because Hubert Humphrey could have been a great president. I have no idea whether my dad would agree with that. He died a few days before the 1968 election.
Being of sturdy conviction, he could well have returned to the conservative fold once the Vietnam War ended. For all I know, he might take issue with much of what I write in this column. But even if he did, I know he'd have enjoyed our disagreements and relished our arguments. He'd even have suggested ways of making my side of the debate more compelling, while still trying to convert me to his view. I owe him a great debt, and I miss him still.
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