My First Republicans

Learning a lesson in civil discourse

Written by Nora Gallagher

Nora GallagherIn August, a year ago, my former husband called to tell me his mother was near the end of her life. I wrote her a letter about what she had meant to me.

Sara read my early, bad poetry with a furrowed brow. She gave me her time, her money and consistent, reliable advice. Being forgiven and forgiving, she once said to me, are what releases us from the past, while making promises and keeping them are what bind us to the future.

She died of lung cancer and Alzheimer’s. The day she died, my former brother-in-law called and told me his father, David, wanted me to come to her funeral and speak the words I had written in my letter. I went to the funeral and to the reception at the cottage she had renovated and lived in until she died. She had hired a woman architect. Photographs of her children lined the walls.

By inviting me to Sara’s funeral, David called me back into his family. He gave me back not only himself, but also his daughter, his two sons, and my memories. “Restore to memory and hope,” are the words of a prayer we use in my church. Now I talk to David on the telephone often and make arrangements to visit him at least four times a year.

It was in the midst of one of our phone conversations, right after a remark about how much he loves the Art Institute in Chicago, as do I, that David said, “I think Dick Cheney is an admirable administrator, an able man.”

I breathed in, and I breathed out. I had been so young and self-centered when I knew him earlier that I don’t think I ever considered that his politics, and Sara’s, might be different from my own. David was my first Republican. They followed like a linked chain after that. Next, I edited an essay by Russell Train. For eight years, under the administrations of Nixon and Ford, Mr. Train was Undersecretary of Interior. He was the first Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality and the second head of the Environmental Protection Agency. We can thank Russell Train for the important environmental legislation passed during the Nixon administration. Russell Train has been a Republican all his life.

Then I went in for an eye check-up with the brilliant, compassionate retinal specialist who has cared for my eyes for ten years. As he stared through the scope into my dilated right eye, I asked him who he was supporting in the election. “Bush,” he replied matter-of–factly.

Finally, there was a TV producer in Los Angeles, a close friend of my literary agent. That March day in 2003 when Colin Powell testified about weapons of mass destruction at the United Nations, I drove down to the producer's house for lunch with her and my agent, who was visiting from New York. Over delicious food, the producer said, “Well, we’ve given Iraq a lot of time. Now we’ve got to get in there.”

I sometimes wonder if the Holy Spirit has plunked me into the midst of these people just to have some fun.

These four people have taught me how complete my political isolation was before I met them. I live among liberals, my friends all live in the Bay Area and New York. I read Harper’s. (We are so liberal that when the nice nurse came to our house to examine us for long term care insurance and asked my husband, as part of the memory test, who was president of the United States, he replied, “Al Gore.”)

Negative politicking has affected me as much as anyone. I am not immune to the partisan trick of dehumanizing political rivals so that you not only revile their ideas you revile the person as well. I have demonized Republicans with the best of them. But not one of these four fit the stereotype leftists often have of conservatives: They are not Christian fundamentalists. They are neither stupid, narrow-minded nor selfish. They are not bigots or racists, neither are they homophobic. They read, they think, no one has pulled the wool over their eyes.

I hope I don’t fit whatever stereotype they have of a liberal. You know: more taxes! Doomsday predictions! Language police!

What’s been amazing is the talk. This is the first time I have spent a lengthy amount of time talking to persons I knew to be on the opposite political side. We disagree about a lot of things: the role of government in the United States, the nature of that government. We interpret history differently; we have different heroes. On the TV producer’s wall when I last visited was a photo of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

They have fundamentally different world views from me. This is not to be minimized or prettied up. At lunch with the TV producer she said something about taxes. I said, I’d really like to see more results from the taxes I pay, thinking, more healthcare, better public transportation. She said, blinking, I can’t think of any good result from taxes. I was stunned and then fascinated, and I was wide awake.

We behave these days, because the campaigns and the pundits are so negative and mean, that disagreement in and of itself is a bad thing. But it’s not. Talking to someone who is not me is interesting, compelling and awakening. A person who is different from oneself enlarges, not only the mind, but the whole world. And, while it’s probably human to want to be among those who look like us and act like us and talk like us, to carry that longing for familiarity too far is to end up in the murderous land of purity, where we desire not only to be among those who agree with us but to purge all that is different, all that is not us. And we liberals know how to do that with the best of them.

With each of these persons, especially David, I have a treasured, ongoing relationship that will outlive the elections this year. It’s a relationship of diversity, of opposites in some areas, like-mindedness in others. I am stuck with them and they are stuck with me. This is the most important thing I’ve learned this year. This is not a war, we are not meant to kill off those who vote differently. More important, we are not meant to fight over politics and then retreat into separate camps. The God I believe in longs for relationship, for the bonds that are as hard to see and as strong as a spider’s web. We are in this messy public life together, citizens all.

Copyright ©2004 Nora Gallagher

Nora Gallagher is the author of two memoirs, Things Seen and Unseen and Practicing Resurrection, both published by Knopf and Vintage books. The names of her former in-laws were changed for this article.