The last time my father and I attended a tea party, my stuffed cat Aida was the guest of honor and the tea was served in Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit teacups. Politics certainly wasn’t a conversation topic. Twenty-something years later, I’ve become a Liberal while my father is a Libertarian. And instead of doilies and cucumber sandwiches, the tea parties of 2010 are serving discord and controversy. One lump or two?
When my mother called and asked me to accompany my father to the Tax Day Tea Party in Washington, D.C., I tried to come up with any excuse to avoid the event: I would stand out as a leftist lamb amongst a pack of rabid wolves; I didn’t want to be mistaken for one of those people; I might catch whatever was wrong with those racist, homophobic, mouth-breathing miscreants.
But then I remembered a few things my father had done for me. When I was 8 years old and wanted to enter a race two hours from where we lived, my father not only drove me there and paid the registration fee (which I now know we really couldn’t afford), he ran with me—until he couldn’t keep up. When I stopped to wait for him, he urged me on and promised to meet me at the finish line. When I decided I wanted to be an artist, he told my grandmother to send art supplies for Christmas. When I started a collection of lizards, snakes and other creepy-crawlies, he spent hours building Plexiglass terrariums and even fitted his favorite wooden tool box with a screened lid to transport my herpetological captives. Not to mention the whole feeding, clothing and sheltering thing.
I wanted these people to be the hate-spewing, scaly underbelly of America, the lunatic fringe, the monomaniac monsters that go bump in the right.
Compared to all that, what was one political rally? Sure, I’d have to listen to his seemingly endless recap of Fox News’ programming and somehow put up with him grinning and nodding in approval to every sign and speech for hours on end, but I kind of owed him. We haven’t always seen eye to eye, but we’ve existed in comfortable disagreement, as families do. He barely raised an eyebrow when I took to wearing fishnet stockings and piercing my face, and he listened in good humor when I tried to convince him the Reverend Horton Heat wasn’t all that different from Hank Williams. When I got kicked out of culinary school, he picked me up at the airport without a word of disappointment and never once fired a single bullet at the many drugged-out, unemployed, “when my band makes it big” boyfriends I brought home—even though we both know he wanted to.
So hey, I decided, I’m going to do something for dad for a change. Besides, I couldn’t deny wanting to see what took place at those tea parties. Maybe I’d luck out and hear or see those jackasses doing something outrageous, something to prove to my dad that I was right and, of course, intellectually superior to “those people.”
Upon arriving in D.C., we were immediately greeted by protesters carrying signs—signs bearing caricatures of President Obama, his African-American features grossly exaggerated, and all manner of slogans. Some were fairly tame, others cringe-worthy. “Tax and spend has got to end”; “I will not be a citizen of the USSA”; “Recycle Congress”; “Welfare Drug Testing”; “Keep it up jokers, Obamacare does not cover tar and feathers.”
I did my best to seek out misspelled signs and racial epithets, but I only found one example to support my theory of how stupid and backwards the tea partiers were: a lone sign reading “Impeach Obuma.”
I admit; I was disappointed. I wanted these people to be the hate-spewing, scaly underbelly of America, the lunatic fringe, the monomaniac monsters that go bump in the right. I needed these so-called concerned citizens to be the impetus for my own political ire. Sure, Obama won, but I still wasn't over the insults hurled at me by the right. Weren’t these the brutes who had claimed I wasn’t a “real American,” the savages who deemed me an elitist, all while I tirelessly participated in the American political process? While I was canvassing for Obama and change by foot and phone, these "real Americans" painted me and my comrades as godless Communists out to destroy their country.
He was a right-wing nut-job; I was a misinformed socialist dupe. But at that political table we shared a beer or two, broke bread and winked at each other across the dogmatic divide, reached over the crater of credo and high-fived.
Wearing a homemade T-shirt that read “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Liberal,” I wandered through the crowd, certain I was swimming with sharks, waiting for them to sink their teeth into me. As they told me their stories, I found their message to be the same rhetoric played ad nauseum on cable news and talk radio. There were small-business owners worried they were going to lose their shirts, grandmothers terrified their grandchildren would have no country to call home, and former Obama supporters who felt cheated and lied to. But none could offer evidence of their fears; they only told me what Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity had told them. In a way, I felt sorry for them. Their fears were as real to them as bogeymen hiding in a child's closet. Limbaugh and Hannity and the like had done such a great job of drawing these people into a horror story of socialist world-takeover I felt transported to 1938, Orson Welles' War of the Worlds narration playing through my mind.
And then there was my dad, the man who had worked his whole life to give me mine; the man who had more than once gone hungry so that my belly would be full. He always took me, the prodigal daughter, back into his home and arms, indulged my every interest and was my most spirited supporter. He sat across the political table from me, sometime shaking his head and rolling his eyes, but never projecting spite my way. Sure, we did occasionally engage in playful name-calling. He was a right-wing nut-job; I was a misinformed socialist dupe. But at that political table we shared a beer or two, broke bread and winked at each other across the dogmatic divide, reached over the crater of credo and high-fived.
Not everyone was as tolerant of me as my dad. There were a couple of people who yelled at me while I talked to protesters; others who warned my interviewees not to talk to me, that I would only print lies and paint them as rednecks or fanatics. And I was mistaken once for a tea partier. A young woman walked past us at the Washington Monument, pointed at us each in turn and said, "Bigot, bigot, bigot!"
Backstage at the rally, my dad proudly displayed his press pass, and we mingled with the voices of a movement. He acted as my assistant, pointing out radio personalities such as Neal Boortz and holding my coffee while I interviewed his idols. Victoria Jackson assured him I’d come around when I reached their age, and Dick Armey demanded to know where dad had gone so terribly wrong with me. There was a fair amount of ribbing—mostly at my expense—but more than anything there was fellowship. Each picture I snapped of dad with his arm around the usually inaccessible celebrities that toed the same line as him, each time I spied my father unable to fully conceal his glee, I found myself smiling. It was fun watching him have fun. Like when I crossed the finish line at that race all those years ago, adrenaline pumping, endorphins coursing, thrilled to be in that moment, my dad was there and excited because I was excited. He ran even though he hated running. We switched roles at the rally. This time, he was the one waiting for me to catch up. And while I didn't come around to his way of thinking, I did gain insight into our relationship.
Riding the Metro home, I was still a Liberal and he was still a nut-job, but we were both all smiles. He had an experience he would be bragging about for years, and I had a hand in that. I discovered that just as my father and I could get along, so could Ron Paul and I. I could shake hands with Andrew Breitbart and show off my tattoos to Tucker Carlson. We may not have found common ground in the arena of politics, but we were all more than happy to set aside our differences and show my dad a good time.
I wish I could end this story with "we are the world" sentiments. But the truth is, as long as the loudest voices deliver the most frightening tales, we are divided. When the volume of the extremist din is dialed down to a murmur in the background—and family, neighbors and co-workers can hear each other—we’ll at least have the chance to agree to disagree.