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What my mother would have thought about the Democratic convention


My mother, Gertrude, would have loved watching the Democratic national convention. She was a political junkie (it was from her I inherited the gene) and a yellow dog Democrat, having revered Franklin Delano Roosevelt and supported every Democratic nominee for President ever since. She also loathed, detested Republicans; one of my earliest memories is of Gertrude denouncing Thomas Dewey in 1948. In one of the last photos I ever took of her, she’s wearing her little Kerry-Edwards button over her heart, and she was rather forlorn when the Democrats lost, although I don’t think she was very surprised.

I’m sorry she missed seeing Barack Obama. How excited she would have been, how proud. She’d been a junior high school teacher in Harlem, in Manhattan, and I know she would have wept tears of joy as he and his beautiful family stepped onto that stage on election night, Nov. 4, 2008, at Grant Park in Chicago, and acknowledged his victory in front of that huge, ecstatic crowd.

I’m not sure whom Gertrude, who died in July, 2005, would have supported in 2008, though: Obama or Hillary Clinton. She would have been enormously glad to see a woman achieve such breathtaking political heights as had Hillary. She would have had her loyalties tested; probably, in the primaries, she would have voted for Hillary, whom she liked a great deal (Gertrude loved Bill Clinton). Gertrude had been born five years before women won the right to vote in this country; I wouldn’t call her a ‘feminist,” but Hillary’s success inspired her. But when Obama ultimately won the nomination, Gertrude surely would have volunteered for the San Mateo County Democratic Central Committee and stuffed as many envelopes as they asked her to.

I’m glad that Gertrude didn’t live long enough to see what happened to the presidency in 2016. She took her politics personally (as do I). She was not without her personal faults and foibles, but she was personally a very fine woman, with a well-developed sense of fairness, and she was enough of an American (although never a yahoo) that she would have grieved that her country had fallen to such a moral and political nadir. She watched a lot of T.V., especially MSNBC, but I bet that when Trump was on, had she lived, she would have hit the “mute” button, as she often did when George W. Bush was on the tube.

I’m sad I never asked my mother why she was a Democrat. It just never occurred to me; it was unthinkable that she could have been a Republican or even an independent. Her parents had been Democrats—in fact they helped boost the Democratic Party in Oklahoma, to which they moved in 1908 before it was even a State, and all the time I was a kid, Oklahoma remained solidly Democratic, producing such national leaders as Sen. Thomas B. Gore, U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert, and Sen. Fred Harris, who ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 1972 and again in 1976, at a moment when Oklahoma was undergoing a sad transformation, under the influence of evangelicals, towards becoming one of the reddest of red states. Gertrude never could understand what had happened in her native state, although she recognized it was the same thing that had happened in a great many other states as well.

Gertrude would have been glued to the T.V. tonight to watch Obama and Kamala Harris. I know exactly what would have happened had I phoned her during the show. Since she never had anything like caller I.D. on her old dumb phone, she would have answered and said, “Hello?” and I would have heard MSNBC blasting in the background (she was a little hard of hearing), and when I told her it was me, she would have said, “Wait a minute, let me turn down the sound,” and she’d be gone for a little while because she never could figure out how to work the remote. But, probably, I wouldn’t have called her during the convention itself, I would have waited until afterwards, and she would have given me her breakdown, her interpretation, her favorite moments.

I’m proud to be a Democrat. I got that from Gertrude. She had an innate sense of fair play, of decency. You might feel this way or that, about this issue or that, but in the end, it was what you did that defined you; and Gertrude felt that her Democrats could always be counted on to do the right thing: for poor people, for minorities, for the disenfranchised, for working people, for the environment, for the cause of liberal democracy. Gertrude was not a deep thinker; she didn’t read political tracts (her tastes ran to thrillers and historical fiction). Had I ever asked her to define what Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had in common, she would, I think, have said something like “They were all for the common man.” She, herself, came from that genre, a common woman, an American from the heartland who, after marriage, lived for the next 40 years in New York City but was never really an urban easterner. She always had, in her heart, the prairies of Oklahoma, the wide starry skies, a certain southern charm and dignity. I remember her absolutely loving “Miss Lillian,” Jimmy Carter’s colorful, outspoken mother, with whom she felt something in common. Here’s my favorite story about Miss Lillian:

During the 1976 campaign, a reporter came to interview her. Miss Lillian greeted her and said, “Welcome to Plains! It’s so nice to see you! Would you like some lemonade? How was your journey? Your dress is beautiful”; pouring out the Southern hospitality. And the reporter jumped right in on Miss Lillian and said, “Now Miss Lillian, your son’s running for president and said he’ll never tell a lie. Now, as a mother, are you telling me he’s never told a lie?” And she goes, “Oh, Jimmy tells white lies all the time!” The reporter said, “Tell me what you mean: what is a ‘white lie’?” And Miss Lillian said, “Remember when I said ‘Welcome to Plains and how good it is to see you’. That’s a white lie.”

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