George H.W. Bush and a Young Boy’s Foray into Politics
In 1988, I was a hapless campaigner for the Republican Party in Flossmoor, Ill. My dad was a member of the party — he was young, and the economic politics of the time made sense for his family’s position of the day — hindsight notwithstanding. In fact — and I should confirm this — my father may have had some minor political aspirations in his 30s, but he apparently sacrificed his dreams of higher office so he was always available to ground my brothers and I from Nintendo, the garage and salad dressing. In his 50s, once we were out of the house, he was elected Flossmoor Public Library Board President. I’m not even sure what party, if any, my dad belongs to now. I do know that he has a disdain for all incumbents, hates Donald Trump and thinks Hillary Clinton is/was a terrible choice, though he voted for her in 2016. So, you know, he’s pretty level-headed. But back in ’88, Dad was a republican and he brought his children to the party.
That fall, Vice President George H.W. Bush was running against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis for the White House. To promote his party’s power, Dad was tasked with delivering pro-Bush pamphlets to all of the houses in the neighborhood. I was 9 years old, my brother Eric was 6. Baby brother Steven was only 4, so he stayed at home with Mom while Dad, Eric and I headed out into the cold, damp, October Saturday morning each with a satchel full of Bush pamphlets. We divided up the neighborhood and set out to slide these pamphlets into mailboxes and storm doors and door handles. Hit and run.
Eric, being only a kindergartner, shared his route with Dad, each one tackling opposite sides of the street. I was on my own. It was a heavy responsibility to stuff the double-sided tri-folds into every house on both sides of the streets.
About halfway into it, my nose cold and dripping snot, my shoes and wet from kicking through dew-stained front lawns, I approached a house as a nice looking man in his 50s was walking down his driveway to retrieve his Chicago Tribune. He was smoking a pipe, had a mustache and his jacket was tweed. He reminded me of my kindly Uncle Jeff. I scooped up his paper for him and met him at his driveway’s midway point.
“Thank you, young man,” he said to me.
“You’re welcome,” I said as I handed him the newspaper. Then I stuck out my arm with the pamphlet in my hand. He tucked the newspaper under his arm and took the offering. He examined it briefly.
“I’m a democrat,” he told me, matter of fact.
“OK.” I said.
He tried to give it back. I refused it.
“I’m a democrat,” he said again.
“I have to hand these out,” I told him.
“Look, son, I don’t vote for republicans. I don’t care what you have to hand out.”
“But my dad said to—”
“Sorry, son. Try some other house.”
He turned on his heels and marched right back up his driveway into his open garage. He stared me down as it closed.
I was confused. Had I done something wrong? What the hell was a democrat and why didn’t they like republicans? And what was a republican, anyway? I looked at one of the pamphlets. Maybe I’d discover something awful about this George Bush guy. But nothing terrible was there: flew a plane in World War II, was our Vice President, did something with something called the CIA, was a congressman — whatever that was. I was nervous to deliver any more pamphlets. For the rest of my route, if it looked like someone was home, I avoided the house completely.
I understood preferring one candidate over the other — I’d voted in every elementary school election — but gently scolding a snot-nosed kid for being a hapless pawn in the political fray because of some hardline preconception or ideology? Even at 9 years old that stubbornness and tribalism confounded me.
Back home with clean dry clothes on and a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, I asked Dad, “What’s a democrat?”
“It’s someone who likes taxes,” he said.
I considered asking him what taxes were but instead asked, “Why are they so angry?” Then I explained my run-in with the man on the driveway.
I thought my experience would have been concern-worthy for my father. Instead, he told me, “Democrats like to do things one way and republicans like to do them another. We are republican. That’s all.”
It felt like he was over-simplifying the issue.
The election was a few weeks later. Dad had gotten home early from work. He was standing in the kitchen, I was at the two steps leading up to it talking with him about my day at school when my mom walked in the door with Eric and Steven in tow.
“Did you vote?” Dad asked her.
“Who’d you vote for?”
After our 41st president died this week, I asked mom, who was at our place spending time with her grandson, if she remembered who she voted for in ’88.
“Probably Bush,” she said.
“Nope. Dukakis,” I corrected her.
“Any idea why you voted democrat in a home that, at the time, was clearly republican?”
Mom thought about it a moment. “I suppose I voted for Dukakis because his running mate was a woman.”
“Really?” my wife Katie said, impressed. “That’s so feminist of you.”
Mom shrugged her shoulders. “You can call it that if you want.”
Republican. Democrat. Feminist. It doesn’t matter. We forget why we voted for whom and our opinions change with our party loyalties. In the end, does it even matter what our campaign pamphlets say? Because in that end, most of those pamphlets wind up in a trash can outside of White Hen and our candidates wind up in a casket on display so we can all pay our respects.