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September 2, 2009

Hiding the opposition

According to Mom, I once met John F. Kennedy.

I don’t remember it because I was a baby and still trying to figure out what my fingers were for. This was back in the days when candidates had to actually go out and meet voters, and Kennedy brought his presidential campaign to the mythical little Indiana village where I was born.

Actually, JFK didn’t come into town. His plane touched down on the strip of asphalt in the middle of a cornfield that my town optimistically referred to as an airport. He worked the crowd of supporters for a few minutes, walking the length of a chain-link fence, shaking hands and kissing babies. In a few moments he was airborne again, off to glad-hand other Hoosier hicks in another landscape of never-ending cornfields en route to becoming our nation’s hottest president.

My late father, a proud Catholic Democrat, drove us to the airport to see Kennedy on that hot summer day in 1960. Holding me up to see the candidate, Dad apologized to JFK for wearing Bermuda shorts on such an auspicious occasion. According to Mom, Kennedy laughed, told Dad he was jealous, gave me a friendly pat on the head and moved on down the line.

Eight years later, prosperous from all that Democratic leadership, Dad went out and bought a Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Alas, in those days, all Cadillac models included tilt steering, automatic windows and membership in the Republican Party. And just like that, Dad was a Nixon man. But, perhaps because of that Kennedy hair-tousle, I was destined to be a lifelong liberal, doomed to working for equality, peace, justice, a clean environment and unwieldy bureaucracy.

When Ted Kennedy died last week, the media rolled out the usual pre-written obituary for a rock-star politician: grainy black-and-white photos, stories of long-ago bitter rivalries, shocking sex scandals, and warm, fuzzy lists of accomplishments. It amazes us in this age of polarization that Ted Kennedy could reach out to political opponents to get legislation passed — which was, of course, his job. This is why I could never be a politician. If I had been Teddy, I would not have been thinking, “How can I cut a deal with these bozos?” I’d have been thinking, “How can I possibly stand in the same room with the likes of Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and Mitch McConnell without ralphing my Guinness ’n’ chips onto my calfskin brogues?”

There’s no doubt Kennedy could get along just fine with the bad guys. That was never more evident than his role in passing No Child Left Behind, one of the biggest investments ever in the future idiocracy. Of course, whether you’re Ted Kennedy, Barack Obama, Al Franken or John Yarmuth, if you are in power, you are The Man. You might pass for a liberal in The Wall Street Journal definition of that word, but you are still going to take corporate money, enrich the greedy and prop up the status quo. The fringe right wing is whining loudly about Obama, but on Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy and the environment, Obama so far seems like a more articulate and less Jesus-y Republican.

Was there ever a time when political sniping did not exist? No. But before the Internet, the national dialogue seemed more civil. Other than a few frothing town hall-meeting sociopaths, people generally won’t say in person what they’ll say online, with anonymity. Still, like most of the tiny minority of Americans who can divert their eyes from “Dancing With The Stars” long enough to follow politics, I rarely tune in opposing viewpoints.

Thanks to cable TV and the Internet, it’s easy to shut off the other side completely. I’ll never forget the happy day when I figured out how to program my TV remote to block FOX News. And Facebook mercifully provides a “Hide” button, a handy tool for concealing your “friends” who post too many status updates about how little Reagan just completed her sixth-grade PowerPoint on keeping “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

But in honor of the Kennedys, I decided to see how the other half lives. So I watched me some FOX, read me some Cal Thomas and unhid the Facebook conservatives. For about a half-hour. And then I curled up in the fetal position. Because those guys are scary.

So thanks, Pop, for taking me out to see JFK that day and teaching all of us a valuable lesson: No matter what you do, do NOT buy a Cadillac.