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My political values and how I got them



My earliest political values were shaped, naturally enough, by my parents.

I don’t recall either of them ever talking to me about politics, or why they were Democrats; but the Democratic Party pervaded my childhood, like the aroma of corned beef which frequently wafted through our Bronx neighborhood, and of all Democrats, one name stood above the rest: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

He was a god to my parents and, particularly, to my mother, whose roots traced back to pioneering, liberal Oklahomans, back before Oklahoma was a red state. I was too young to remember FDR—he died before I was born—but a younger, second Democratic hero was shortly to invade my childhood consciousness: Adlai Stevenson, the Illinois governor who ran for President twice, both times unsuccessfully, against Dwight Eisenhower. My mother absolutely adored him.

By the time I was thirteen, John F. Kennedy was running for President, and he became my first childhood hero. I actually met him once. Well, maybe “met” is too strong a word. I heard he was campaigning at a hotel a few blocks from my house, so I “borrowed” one of my mother’s brooms, sawed off the stick, bought some posterboard, scribbled it with “JFK” in black magic marker, stapled it to the broomstick, and made my way to the hotel, where fewer than a dozen people were waiting for the Senator to arrive. His limo pulled up; he got out, straightened his tie, glanced at me and my sign, gave a slight grin and nod of the head, and disappeared into the hotel.

Still, had you asked me why I considered myself a Democrat, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I knew that Democrats were the “good” party, just as I knew that Republicans were the “bad” party. As worshipped as the names “Roosevelt” and “Stevenson” were in the Heimoff household, the names “Dewey” and “Nixon” were loathed. Then, before you knew it, the Sixties had arrived, and my generation began, for the first time, to think seriously about politics, values, morality and the difference between “right” and “wrong.”

To me, raised with traditional Jewish values, the “right” values were tolerance, love, justice, fairness and scientific progress, tinged, perhaps, with a little socialism. These are the values I associated with the Democratic Party. Republicans always seemed mean to me: angry, petulant old white men with a hunger for money, and an intense dislike for people who were different from them, which included me. As I grew older, I learned that Republicans didn’t necessarily have horns and forked tails, but they might as well have, since there was something diabolical about them.

I’d say my true political awakening occurred during the Clinton years. Although I’d been a strong supporter of Jimmy Carter, I still hadn’t thought through my attitudes, and I was largely sidelined from politics during the Reagan years, when I—like many other Boomers—was preoccupied with my career. But I liked Bill Clinton a lot: I still have a letter from him, dated 1988, when he was Governor of Arkansas, thanking me for a fan letter I’d sent him (my first and only such, ever), after seeing him interviewed on C-SPAN by Brian Lamb. Such a smart man, I thought. I liked the complexity and subtlety of his mind, the liberality of his thinking. I thought he’d make a great President; told him so, and, lo, it came to be.

So that, when the Republican attack machine went after him and Hillary with a vengeance, I realized that we Democrats were at war. I marched in San Francisco to protest impeachment. I saw, clearly for the first time, how vengeful the Republican Party had become. How crazy, too, with their strange-bedfellows embrace of evangelicals, who, by the late 1970s, I’d realized were ignorant, hateful and—to the extent they possessed political power—dangerous. My views about Republicans have only strengthened since then, as they’ve gone further off the rails.

I was loosely for Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004: not the most exciting Democrats, but broadly representative of my party and values. In 2008, I was strongly for Hillary, but as soon as Obama won the nomination, I switched my allegiance to him, and on the night of his election, when he and his beautiful family stepped out onto that Chicago stage, I stood in front of my T.V. and wept.

Obama represented everything I love about the Democratic Party: thoughtfulness, inclusiveness, a willingness to tackle tough problems in a rational way, rather than in an emotional, ideological or religious way; a nice, decent, humble, smart man. Yes, he might have been more “leftish,” but he was a practical politician, and reasonable people can disagree about things like that.

I also like the Democratic Party’s redistributionist philosophy: I’ve known an awful lot of billionaires and others with “only” hundreds of millions, and there is absolutely no reason not to raise their taxes. I like the Democratic Party’s sympathy for the LGBTQ community; although it took Barack (and Hillary) a while to come around and support gay marriage, they eventually did so, while the Republicans doubled down on homophobia. I admire the Democratic Party’s recognition that environmental issues, including climate change, are priorities, and I respect that Democrats use science and real facts to resolve complicated issues, like global warming, rather than retreating into superstition and ignorance. I admire the Democratic Party’s concern for the poor and for working-class Americans. I admire their sense of social justice.

I voted for a Republican once: George H.W. Bush, in 1988. Dukakis seemed hapless, and, whatever else you could say about Bush, he wasn’t one of the crazies. But I figure everyone’s entitled to make one big political mistake in his lifetime; Bush was mine. The Republicans might actually have held my interest had they not made the historically tragic decision to lay down with the religious crazies and become a party of plutocrats and theocrats. I hate and fear religion in government; my anti-Republicanism is another reason to vote for a secular Democratic Party.

To this day I consider myself more of a Democrat than ever. I see a younger generation moving away from the Democratic Party (and the Republican Party too), towards alternatives: green, or libertarian, or independent, or—sadly—towards nothing at all but an individualistic nihilism. But I have hope that they will eventually come around to the great Democratic Party. Hope: that’s another thing I learned from my parents. It’s what makes Democrats tick.

  1. I fell in love with your writing, when your Russian River book became published. This story just reminded me of how I felt about your writing, while reading that book. You’re such a beautifully, thoughtful man. Your style is so eloquent. And, you’re a master craftsman of thought construction… Great story, Steve. It’s such an honor to call you my dear friend.

  2. Many thanks, Jo. I feel the same about you and Jose.

  3. Steve: We share similar stories of how we became – and stayed – Democrats. My political activism took shape in the 60’s with Vietnam and 2 brothers who managed to elude the draft in different ways. I worked for the Carter/Mondale campaign, and served on the Pennsylvania Democratic Committee for a few years, before becoming disillusioned with party politics in the Philly area. Carter’s born-again Christianity worried me until I saw what an ethical person he was/is, and how he never used his religion as a tool in his political decisions.

    Like so many, I was blown away by Bill Clinton’s intelligence and compassion. He accomplished a lot for women and minorities, and I still like him. I always wished that Hillary had some of his charisma and warmth, and I think she would have made an excellent President. I still do, but I think her time has passed.

    On some level, I think of the Obamas and the Kennedys as being very similar despite their obvious differences in family history and upbringing. I miss President Obama’s easy graciousness, dignity and humor.

    The current crop of ultraconservative, fundamentalist Repubs scares the crap out of me, and has roused me from complacency. We must continue to resist.

    Or as Monty Python so eloquently put it: No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!


  4. Thank you Goddess. The current crop of repubs scares me too, but more than being frightened, I’d mad as heck and in a fighting mood.

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