One of the worst days of my parents’ marriage came mere weeks into it, before I was even born, over a November pot roast dinner when my mother admitted – as she scooped mashed potatoes for my father – that she had just voted for JFK.
For my father, this was a more horrifying revelation than if my mother had yanked up her apron to reveal, say, a kangaroo pouch or footlong penis.
My father simply eased his chair back, according to family lore, left the table and “went for a drive.”
My father is a lifelong Republican.
I come from a family of lifelong Republicans.
The elephant is as much a part of our DNA as astigmatism and a wicked arch.
Like singles today who seek others with similar interests – SWM seeks SWF, NS, loves dogs and kids, not into water sports – my father intentionally sought out someone who shared his political interests as a way to successfully keep the GOP family spawn swimming conservatively upstream.
My father returned home that election night to massive defeat – both on the homefront and national scene – but he coped by turning my mother into a stereotype: She had voted for JFK because she was a young woman, immature, pliable, and Kennedy was rugged, attractive, manly. My mother had been deceived by the media, by TV, by looks over substance, but that this was an aberration.
Unfortunately for my father, my mother has always been a free thinker, and I believe something altered our family genes that November election-eve when my mother voted for Kennedy’s rugged good looks over Nixon’s sweat-drenched body because – like an experiment gone bad – I was later produced, like The Fly, and I turned out to be, horror of horrors, not only a Democrat but also a boy who liked meat other than pot roast.
“I voted for JFK, because I will always believe in hope, in dreams, in miracles," my mother told me when I was still too young to understand what she was saying.
Still, I was able to understand from an early age that I took after my mother both politically and sexually, and network TV – the “great evil,” as my dad often called it – was my initial gauge.
My mother and I not only used to get inexplicably turned on watching Hal Linden and Kevin Dobson play “Simon Says” during “Battle of the Network Stars,” but we also used to become inexplicably incensed listening to my father curse Walter Cronkite and his “liberal tendencies,” decades before that phrase had become a heralded conservative battlecry.
“Why don’t you just switch the channel?” my mom would often say to my father when he watched the CBS Evening News.
“Watch someone else.”
“I need to keep an eye on Cronkite,” he would say, before adding, “And Nixon doesn’t take any fucking prisoners.”
He would then sometimes shake his head in admiration.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” my mom would answer, turning to head into the kitchen.
My dad viewed politics as he did any sport, be it football, or boxing: He expected it to be ruthless and dirty, bloody and unpredictable. In fact, he screamed at the TV more watching the nightly news than he did Friday Night Boxing or Sunday football.
In addition to the favorites phrases my dad used to yell at my brother and me, such as “Get your ass out of bed!”, “Clean your plate!” and “What’re you doing in that bathroom?”, my father also had a stockpile of catchphrases he loved to bombard on newscasters and Democratic politicians, such as “term limits,” “welfare state,” “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” and “that damn Ted Kennedy.”
I understood where my father was coming from, though. My family was self-made. We were, as cliche as it may sound, “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps” type folks. My grandfathers labored in mines and rock fields, they sold vaccuums, my grandmothers sewed, they worked like no one else I’ve ever known just so they could have the American dream: A home, a car, a better life for their children.
And the lifetime of dirt they collected under their nails meant their families wouldn’t have to dig and claw as hard just to make it through life. My mother and father were the first to graduate college in their families.
Ultimately, the older I got, I ended up following my father's advice and turning away from my mother's: To win in politics, and life, I thought, you not only had to fight the odds and be determined, but you, more than anything else, had to be ruthless.
As a result, this is the philosophy I brought to school. Determined not only to make my father proud but also to conquer the popular crowd, I ran for political office.
When I stumped for student council, I ran against a girl who was undoubtedly smarter and significantly better qualified, as well as prettier and more popular.
She deserved to win.
The posters of my contestant showed her looking like a supermodel in her cheerleading uniform. Mine said simply, “Win with Wade.” Her campaign manager – a fellow cheerleader – was obviously more savvy and astute, more in tune with what the electorate wanted, than was my campaign manager, a girl who played piccolo and dreamed of being a mechanical engineer.
But the best, most qualified candidates, I had learned, didn’t always come out on top.
“Nixon doesn’t take any fucking prisoners,” my father told me as my election neared.
So I began by defacing a few of my competitor’s posters, drawing mustaches on her face, and hair across the chest of her cheerleading uniform with a black El Marko.
On some of her posters, I penciled this important question across her chest: “Do you want a boob representing you?”
I spread rumors that she was failing Algebra, and I started handling my own media outreach, which included hanging some rather disturbing but attention-grabbing posters that featured baby seals being beaten, with the following slogan: “Wade Will Club The Competition!”
When it came time for my final skit in front of the student body, I pulled a few of the most popular kids from every grade and had them do asinine things, promising them everything from more pizza parties to soda in the lunchroom.
And it worked.
That night, my mom strolled into my bedroom before dinner. I expected her to congratulate me on my upset win. Instead, she told me that she knew what I had done to win.
Down to defacing the posters.
“Ethics,” she told me, “is what you do when no one is looking.”
I took this to heart the next fall when I ran for class office. I spoke about improving the school lunches and doing away with study hall, so we could add much-needed advanced classes. Not exactly the issues rural high school kids care much about. As a result, I lost to a hot guy who made his final speech while cloaked in a mesh football practice half-jersey. He asked the class, while pointing at me with a flexed arm, “I mean, come on, who would you rather have representing you? Me or him?”
I mean, I was ready to blow him after his 5-second speech.
Fast-forward a few decades to 2000, the trainwreck that was Bush vs. Gore.
The best candidates didn’t always win.
Politics, as my dad had taught me, was brutal and ruthless, indeed.
This election (and the 2004 election) became watershed moments in my life. I felt, as a gay man, ostracized from our nation, hated, bullied, just like the boys who used to spit on my partner, Gary, in school.
I also knew I had once won using the same disgusting tactics.
During these eight years, my family stopped debating politics for the first time in our lives. Even through the good and bad, the natural ebb and flow, the checks and balances of our political system, no matter how bitterly my father and I had debated over candidates and issues, we always did so with a sense of love and respect, almost like two tiger cubs playing.
But during these years, when I would visit, or we would chat on the phone, we focused solely on the weather or sports.
My father, I knew, firmly believed in Bush, his views on morality and “family values.” Missouri would – along with so many other states – go on not only to support Bush but also to vote in favor of an unneeded definition of marriage in its constitution. I would see “umarried couples” banned from adopting and fostering children. Winning in politics, it seemed, meant dividing and angering the electorate.
And this hurt me, hurt me so deeply as to live a stinging void in my chest every time I would visit or hang up the phone.
And then in the fall of 2008, when I was visiting, my mom fixed the ultimate meal of irony: Pot roast and mashed potatoes.
It was a tense visit. Gary had been campaigning tirelessly for Obama. Both of us once again felt that this was not simply an election but a referendum on our lives. Electing Obama could change our nation forever. It would provide hope to any person who ever felt ostracized, different. Yet I knew my father had long admired McCain, his tenacity and fight, his heroism.
The only sounds that night at dinner were nervous knives cutting too deeply, scratching the plates, a spine-tingling scream none of us could voice.
“Dad, this has been a nasty election. Too nasty, don’t you think?” I asked, trying to bridge our gap.
“Damn right!” my dad bellowed. “And it needs to get nastier. McCain and Palin need to take those liberals to the ropes!”
I had felt the same thing at one time, when Obama fell behind in the polls, screaming at the TV for him to get nasty, to get dirty, to not simply deface some posters and air some negative commercials but literally to gut his competition.
But I thought of my mother.
Ethics were what you did when no one was looking.
“You have to vote for Obama,” I said, suddenly, without warning, staring directly at my father. “Missouri is a battleground state. You have to do it for me. For your son.”
“How about this weather?” my dad said, ignoring the Republican elephant in the room. “It’s been so rainy.”
I fought back tears and gummed some potatoes.
I did not talk with my parents until yesterday afternoon, before Obama had clinched the presidency. My mom called, and it was a gentle conversation, as we tip-toed through the thorns, both of us knowing what was to come in future years: The strain, the silence, the occasional yet unspoken tension at family dinners.
But our talk was heartfelt and necessary.
And then, in a whisper, she confided in me that she had voted for Obama. “He ran such a classy, ethical campaign. I mean, for me to walk into a booth in rural Missouri and, as a woman …”
And here, she stopped, not crying really, but weeping, bawling, her words coming out like ghosts that were being exorcised.
“… be able to vote for a black man … it means so much.”
She took a deep breath, and calmed herself.
“You know, I always wanted to be a doctor, and it just wasn’t what women did when I was growing up,” my mother, the nurse, told me. “And you … to have lived a lie for so long because you didn’t feel worthy, to not be able to marry the one you love. I know so many others have suffered so much more, but each of us had a dream … and then each of us had to put that dream away … this election is the first step in changing that cycle.”
And, like she had done her whole life, even a half a century ago, before I was born, my mother – the ER nurse, the ICU nurse, the hospice nurse who gave her life to others – gathered her strength, walked up a flight of stairs at her polling booth, and voted for those who dream.
My mother did this, you see, in the midst of battling cancer, in the midst of motherlodes of chemotherapy.
What did my mother do when no one was looking?
She pulled a lever for hope, for her son, and continued to be the greatest ethics teacher of my life.
Causes Wade Rouse Supports