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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.

By E.J. Dionne  | October 27, 2008; 8:42 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Thanks for sharing this. Your anecdote reminds me of my father (who died ten years ago). He was a lifelong Republican of the old school: smaller government, lower taxes, yes, but also for keeping government out of private lives (believed abortion was an issue confined to the patient-doctor relationship), for strict separation of church and state (because, not despite the fact, that he was an evangelical Christian), and for equal rights (proud that Martin Luther King was a Republican; like Goldwater, for gay rights). We'd argue some of the social engineering stands of the Democrats (we were at odds over California's Proposition 13 that slashed property taxes which, I believe I correctly argued, would--did--result in an underfunded school system). But the basic vision of what we wanted to see in America was similar enough for our arguments to get loud and passionate while never angry.

I hope that with their new nearly-in-the-bag resumption of power, the Democrats extend the olive branch. I for one, would welcome renewed dialogue with the Republicans of the old fiscally responsible school of conservatism--if any of them are left or if any new ones can be found.

Posted by: multiplepov | October 27, 2008 9:54 PM | Report abuse

Greed doesn't just exist on Wall Street.

Posted by: helloisanyoneoutthere | October 27, 2008 11:13 PM | Report abuse

E.J., I vaguely remember reading this 10 yrs ago, but certainly appreciate you sharing it with us again. I suspect that this Election would have provided much fodder for conversation between you and your dad. Or perhaps once more you'd find yourselves in agreement.

You honor him well.

Posted by: Bakes | October 28, 2008 3:43 AM | Report abuse

My family had a Saturday morning ritual. After breakfast was finished, the table cleared, and everyone had their second cup of coffee, the discourse began. It always included my brothers and my father, sometimes my mother, too.

It might start out about with sports (1968 was a great year for the Detroit Tigers), but always came around to politics.

My father was a UAW Democrat (I can confidently state that he never once voted for a Republican). My oldest brother was a Reagan Democrat, years before anybody had heard that term. My other brother seemed content to keep his political thoughts to himself. I was a Gene McCarthy Democrat. I was the one who was vulnerable for the draft.

The discussions started out at a normal tone, pitch and pace, but within minutes we had our own McLaughlin Therapy Group going, everyone talking at once, voices raised, fists pounding the table. And everyone enjoying themselves immensely.

One Saturday, after my oldest brother was married, he and his new bride stopped in on Saturday morning. Coffee was served, and the debate began, everyone enjoying the sport. Almost everyone.

After a half-hour or so, someone asked, "Where's Marian?" She was found in the living room, crying her eyes out, quite sure that she was witnessing our family coming apart at the seams.

We had a tough time convincing her that this was healthy sporting fun.

But in each of our homes, I and my oldest brother have carried on the tradition.

Posted by: wagthedog | October 28, 2008 7:19 AM | Report abuse

Thank you E.J. for the heartwarming column.

I like you took out a subscription to The New Republic and The National Review when I was 13. I think it's served me well to still be able to talk to conservatives in ways that some liberals can't bring themselves to.

It's a pity that the National Review (and to a lesser extent) The New Republic are not the learning tools they once were for young minds interested in politics. Although, I think that exposure to say Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal on the right and you (Paul Krugman given our economic problems) and others on the left have a semblance of the political education we both shared.

At least this generation has "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," although we did have Tom Lehrer's TW3 (That Was the Week that Was). Given our election which I think has an underlying theme of Brotherhood vs. Bigotry, Lehrer's song on National Brotherhood, perhaps, was never more timely:

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks,
And the black folks hate the white folks.
To hate all but the right folks
Is an old established rule.

But during national brotherhood week, national brotherhood week,
Lena horne and sheriff clarke are dancing cheek to cheek.
Its fun to eulogize
The people you despise,
As long as you dont let em in your school.

Oh, the poor folks hate the rich folks,
And the rich folks hate the poor folks.
All of my folks hate all of your folks,
Its american as apple pie.

But during national brotherhood week, national brotherhood week,
New yorkers love the puerto ricans cause its very chic.
Step up and shake the hand
Of someone you cant stand.
You can tolerate him if you try.

Oh, the protestants hate the catholics,
And the catholics hate the protestants,
And the hindus hate the moslems,
And everybody hates the jews.

But during national brotherhood week, national brotherhood week,
Its national everyone-smile-at-one-another-hood week.
Be nice to people who
Are inferior to you.
Its only for a week, so have no fear.
Be grateful that it doesnt last all year!

Posted by: Jeff-for-progress | October 28, 2008 7:52 AM | Report abuse

I was for Eugene McCarthy. In those days, the limit one could give a candidate was $1,000 and I wanted to give more. My aunt Jennie was in a nursing home. I wanted to use her name to make a donation and she agreed. I went to the bank and bought a Cashier's check. For "remitter" they would put anything you told them, so I put her hame and sent it in. She even put a McCarthy sticker on her car's bumper (why she still had a car while in a nursing home is another story!) Anyway, she was glad to be a McCarthy supporter as long as it didn't cost her anything!

Posted by: rabbit3 | October 28, 2008 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Our family too loves a good political debate. I felt bad for my husband the other day because he had a differing opinion than did my stepfather. He bacame passionate and raised his voice. My stepfather of course having grwon up in a large family of German heritage was used to loud Sunday dinners stood there and listened intently. My husband apologized for being disrespectful and we all just looked at him. He hadn't been in the slightest bit disrespectful just loud and passionate and he mad a solid point that was well received. I love my family for the great conversations that we have had. We too have begun this with our children who have begun paying attention to the presidential debates and other political discourse. We love the Colbert Report and the Daily Show together as a family and can even sit and watch something as inane as South Park and sift out the current events for discussion. I look forward to many years of Sunday gatherings.

Posted by: clives | October 28, 2008 1:08 PM | Report abuse

I didnt realize that we are the same age. Ironically, I was raised by a GOP family as well, my first political action was to hand out Goldwater flyers. In '68 I was radicalized by the Demo convention, never to share in my parents views again. My father is still alive, but I have never been able to have a political discussion due to his anger anytime I have attempted it, so even though it was brief, I'm glad you got to have those discussions with your Dad

Posted by: barge23 | October 28, 2008 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for sharing E.J. I fought over politics with my father all our lives. We reached the point wherein we didn't discuss it much. My father was a staunch union man and I was a small businessman and Republican. Truthfully, at one point my father and I quit talking to each other for almost a month following an argument over unions and politics.

Now I'm 65 years old and I support Senator Obama. I supported him from the beginning. I quit the Republican Party when Bush attacked Iraq and vowed to never again vote for another Republican.

Hardly a day goes by that I don't wonder what dad would say about the turn of events over the last eight years. I know I am embarrassed whenever I tell others I was a Republican for 44-years.

If my dad were alive today, I'm sure he would tell me I should be embarrassed.

Posted by: Vunderlutz | October 28, 2008 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for writing this and hleping me to see that my relationship with my father is shared by you and others. I would like to email this piece to him but don't seem to be able to. Hopefully you will make this option available in the future.

Posted by: gandy1999 | October 29, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for sharing your thoughts of your father, as well as your insight to the events leading up to an increasingly important election- not unlike 1968.
I hope that Barack Obama will succeed and truly combine the best of Bobby Kennedy's intellect with the rhetoric of Martin Luther King.
I enjoy listening to your comments on NPR and look forward to your upcoming thoughts on the results of the election.

Posted by: jojo1567 | October 29, 2008 6:22 PM | Report abuse

"I always think of 1968 as the year we lost three great Americans: Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and my father"

Hey, Dionne, you should have a problem with Obama, then.

Did you know Obama's buddy Bill Ayers dedicated one of his books to the guy who killed Robert Kennedy? Ayers saw him as one of his heroes.

And to think Ayers is the type of guy Obama chooses to hang with. You gotta' question this Barack Obama's judgment.

Posted by: SeekTruth | October 31, 2008 5:11 PM | Report abuse

I grew up in Minnesota. I was in Nam in '68. By November I knew we weren't the good guys. I could not vote for Humphrey, my childhood hero. If he didn't know what was going on over there, he should have. Either way he was an accomplice.

I couldn't vote for "Tricky Dick" Nixon either.

I didn't have anyone to vote for till Paul Wellstone came along. He set the tone for Obama, who has my vote.

Posted by: arty2 | November 1, 2008 11:42 AM | Report abuse

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