My Father and the Democrats

It’s father’s day tomorrow and I have taken to sharing little reminiscences on facebook about both my parents. It’s easier to write at length here so I’ve changed venues to stir the pot a little more.

My father was a lifelong Democrat after voting Socialist for Norman Thomas in 1932. He would have been exactly 21 and a sophomore or junior at Miami University of Ohio, which sported, among other claims to fame, the Alpha Chapter of the fraternity Sigma Chi. I am old enough to have heard, and have the personal connection to remember a ridiculous song called “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” which, as it turns out, is the Number One all-time favorite college song and which was rhapsodized as follows by its author:

“The ‘Sweetheart’ is the symbol for the spiritual ingredient in brotherhood. It was the Sigma Chi Fraternity itself that inspired the song. I wrote the words not long after my initiation, and the magic of our Ritual with its poetic overtones and undertones was, I suppose, the source of my inspiration”.

I seem to have always known that my father was a member of that very Alpha chapter, and that he was disinvited from living in the actual frat house for — at least early on — unspecified shenanigans and wound up his college career living in a boarding house whose matron, naturally, he totally charmed to the point that they remained buddies 30 years later.

Maybe Norman Thomas was just another shenanigan, though I did find some college newspaper columns he wrote that mentioned Thomas, mostly in a sardonic way. But he was definitely flirting with radicalism.

Aside from stories my father’s politics were straight-ahead Democrat. That meant he supported Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. I was aware enough by the latter date to remember a picture of Stevenson wearing shoes with a hole in the sole: the common man’s intellectual.

The town I grew up in, Mattoon, Illinois, was pretty solidly Republican, as was the surrounding Congressional District, as was the owner of the newspaper my father worked for. Fortunately, that same owner had been a good drinking buddy of my father’s in the pre-war years of horsing around, so not only did he give my father a job when he was really down on his luck, he also tolerated his politics, maybe because by that point the guy was barely ever in the office and mostly paid attention to his show horses. My first job was cutting his massive five-acre grounds for a buck an hour.

As the main editorial guy it fell to my father on election night to oversee the gathering, collating and ultimately printing of the election results in Wednesday’s Journal-Gazette. This involved having the whole editorial staff (4-5 people or so) and other volunteers answer telephones when individual precincts would call in as ballots were counted (of course by hand). I was allowed to tag along and hang out and, nerd that I was, I thought it was the coolest thing ever and naturally everyone good-humoredly chatted with and joshed Dave McDonald’s kid staying up WAY past his bedtime (on a school night!) so I had all the attention I could stand. The room was full, phones rang constantly and news and rumors and speculation abounded. It was very noisy and purposeful. People would bring ballots with numbers written by the candidates’ names with the precinct on top and my father entered all the data onto a gigantic piece of posterboard. Today we would call it a flat file. When it was finished a photographer came in and shot it on 4×5 film and sent it off to Effingham to have a plate burned.

My father was a public Democrat and he did what he could to advance the party’s fortunes in essentially rural central Illinois through his newspaper editing, and so for various favors I know nothing of, he got the crackerjack prize of being an alternate delegate to the upcoming Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles simply by being nominated and unopposed. This cost the DP nothing and from it they got daily newspaper coverage of their convention written by a local guy and therefore of interest in sleepy Mattoon.

This was 1960. I had apprenticed on the 1956 Stevenson campaign so I was all about the 1960 presidential campaign as a spectacle with, for me, absolutely no political meaning, but a way into the adult world. I was as mindlessly Democratic as my father. My father had picked LBJ as his guy, not because he liked him better but because he thought Kennedy had no chance. So suddenly, as the convention unfolded, he turned into a JFK partisan and never budged from that view. Kennedy’s assassination unleashed all his Irish demons.

The DP 1960 Convention was in Los Angeles, so that provided an opportunity for a rare family vacation. All 5 of us piled into a Volkswagen bus — a very exotic vehicle choice in those days, you had to drive 40 miles to get the thing serviced — and rode US 99 all the way to LA. Swimming was my only sport and I was gobsmacked by the thought that we were staying at my godparent’s compound on Mulholland Drive which contained a private swimming pool you could just swim in anytime you wanted. I spent about 10 hours a day of that vacation in the pool. The only outing I remember was a trip to Disneyland but I didn’t care.

Much later, making a joke about his Kennedy jones, I gave my father a nice butane cigarette lighter inscribed “from JFK to DBM”. This backfired as my father morphed reality and later claimed JFK had actually given him the lighter, not so very different maybe from the ways that lots of our stories get better over time. I, however, was mortified every time I heard him make the claim.

The creation of the Election Night chart/spreadsheet for 1960 was epic. I was allowed to man one of the telephones taking data from the precincts. It was unbelievably cool and there was a lot of knowing talk about how long it was going to take the Democratic Party in Cook County to figure out how many ballots they had to steal to overwhelm the downstate Republicans and win the election for Kennedy. I spent a lot of time asking people what they meant when they said stuff, but I was not allowed to pull an all-nighter so I learned of Kennedy’s victory the next morning.

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