This election season is different than the ones that came before it. The mad men who write the ads would have you believe that this is the most important election of our lifetimes, and maybe it is. The pundits tell me that if Romney wins, or Obama for that matter, life as I know it will cease and the country will be turned over to the ideological zealots, and things will never be the same. The amount of spending on political advertisements has reached absurd and obscene heights, but besides the amount of ads hammered into our collective consciousness, they’re the same ads we watched when Bush 1 battled Dukakis, then Clinton, etc. But this one is different.
This is the one without my dad.
My father raised attention to election cycles to an art form that would have made Brando envious, his jaw clenching in response to ads from whomever the wrong candidate was, always a member of the bleeding heart liberal side. He was a veteran, drafted into the army during the Vietnam era, and knew loss and guilt to a degree I will never relate to. His opinions were staunch and unwavering, and did not tolerate dissent.
They were come by in a way that most of us happen upon our ideological persuasions. His parents voted Republican, though his father was a blue collar machinist. He was raised a Roman Catholic, though his mom was Jewish until she was cast out of the family for daring to marry the grease ball she fell in love with. My dad associated Democrats with weakness and the sucking off the government teat, and Republicans as strong, with military might, and with independence from government programs. The civil rights era of the 60s didn’t leave him with a sympathy for those with less or make him pick up the picket lines and march in DC. He landed a white collar executive job and made good money.
When I was in tenth grade, I was given a month to work on an in depth report on the Gulf War. The morning it was due, I decided it would be a good time to start thinking about the project, and I posed the questions to my dad over the breakfast table. Why, Daddy, are we at war?
He lifted his mug and drained it to the last dregs of coffee dirt, and then fixed me with a stare. He then rattled off the history in the Middle East, Iraq, Iran, the Shah, the seventies. He sang the praise of George Bush from the mountaintop of our kitchen table in a way that might have made MLK proud, if my dad had had any love for the man, which he didn’t. He preached in a way that would have made Obama stop and take notes. In one breath, he outlined the war, the history, the causes, and the implications. It was a tome, spoken over my head, directed at some liberal school teacher who could learn a thing or two.
I turned that paper in on time. And I got an A.
Bill Clinton was a personal affront to all we held dear. His peccadilloes inspired moral rage and his reelection was a travesty and the end of the country we had loved. It was the most important election of our lifetime, see? I was twenty years old in 1996. It was the first national election that I was able to participate in.
I secretly pulled my lever for Clinton.
I was personally responsible for all that followed: the impeachment hearings, which blared from our living room television, eliciting the same indignant howls from my father that the Giants usually did during football season. Twenty was the year I moved out of my house and in with my first boyfriend, who kinky black hair offended my father to his very core. It was the year I spoke, with quivering hesitancy, about my secret, forbidden feelings that were just budding, leaning away from my father and toward something quite different.
For seven years, my phone rang on the morning of September eleventh, my father’s voice just calling “to say hey.” We didn’t talk about it, but we were celebrating an anniversary, the two of us, of a day when I left my cell phone in my car at the train station and boarded the LIRR into Manhattan. The phone in my cubicle went unanswered because we were on the roof that morning, watching the second plane hit and the towers devastate lowed Manhattan. Twenty-seven voice mail messages. All from my dad.
We descended into a new war, another war, an old war in the Middle East. My father proselytized about Iran, Iraq, oil, the seventies, the implications, and the history. He sang the praises of a strong military and of the Bush dynasty. But I didn’t copy the words down now. I questioned them. In a small voice, I challenged them. And the comfort of my place as my daddy’s little girl began to shift, harden, and fall away. After the second election, in which I quietly voted for John Kerry, who made my father’s eye alight with snakelike venom when they ran photos of him sitting next Hanoi Jane, we couldn’t talk. We chatted, and visited. We exchanged pleasantries. But I was not the little girl he’d raised.
The last election cycle that he was alive for was the most important in this nation’s history. The news channels had pitted a Vietnam war veteran against a liberal black guy. Guess who voted for whom? The speeches, the press conferences, the debates were emotional minefields in my relationship with my father. Up until then, I’d been looking for a strong, savvy democrat to get behind, to admire, someone my father could maybe give me a grudging acknowledgement for. I had a thing for Eliot Spitzer when he was the tough-assed DA for the state of NY. I watched him become the governor of our state and really thought he was it, until that whole prostitute thing had him leave office in disgrace, a waste of a superior intellect and sharp-edged strength.
That’s when I discovered this Obama guy who everyone was talking about. There were about eighteen candidates vying for the democratic nomination at that time, it seemed. Obama was getting some strong fanfare, the press was eating out of his hands, and his opponents were fierce. They threw out accusations about his history and his associations. They said Jeremiah Wright like they were linking him with Hitler (and then they tried to link him with Hitler.) And he made a speech one night about Jeremiah Wright, about race in the United States, about blacks versus white versus brown and those in between. He didn’t shy from his pastor, nor make excuses for his extreme views. He stood behind a podium and gave me context in a way that was unafraid of inflammatory language. He spoke straight and I listened to him. I still do.
For years ago I was quite loud about my support for Obama. My dad, he voted for McCain. And when Ohio went blue, and Virginia went blue, Pennsylvania and Iowa and Florida went blue, I picked up the phone and called my old man, looking to gloat, to piss him off, to get under his skin with the election of the first black president, a liberal with no military background. I expected undiluted rage. I braced myself for a string of colorful obscenities.
But I got this instead: “Congratulations, baby. He’s a class act.”
The election in a few weeks is the most important of our lifetimes. It has the power to change our lives and our country as we know it. As I annoy everyone I know with my loud opinions on Facebook and bore people in the blogosphere with my observations, know that I can still hear my father’s voice. It’s louder than Joe Scarborough and Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher. It tells me that I’m wrong, mistaken, that my priorities are screwed up and urges me to get with the program, to “shake my head because my eyes are stuck.”
It’s the sweetest voice I ever heard.