My Father’s Legacy by
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Although my mother had been brought up in an orthodox Jewish home, my Dad was never even a bar mitzvah. His religion was the Democratic Party, FDR was God and  he considered election day his holy day of obligation.

My Father's Religion was the Democratic Party

I remember my father hunched over the round end table in the living room of our small Bronx apartment, sharpened pencil in hand. It is  the presidential election in 1948 and he is busy creating  a well ordered  list of the states with boxes for each of their  electoral votes.   Before the magic of instant computer calculations on television,  my father would manually  tally the electoral votes while listening to  the returns on the radio. This is my earliest memory of him. My  father, usually laid back and undemonstrative,  acted almost giddy the next morning with the news  that Truman had won re-election.

Our family dinner conversations were generously sprinkled with his take on current events and politics, and I witnessed debates with his extended family that bordered on great theatre. My father was very anti-communist, but his  brother-in-law, my Uncle Grisha, was a card carrying Communist . (Dad saw the success of the New Deal as the answer to socialism).  In the throws of a disagreement,  my uncle and my father would  leap out of their chairs  with Grisha screaming “You just don’t understand Stalin and the Soviets”, with my  Dad yelling back,  “I understood  Stalin the minute  he signed a pact with Hitler!” The decibel level was high, with my mother trying to calm things down by reminding everyone of “the neighbors”.  As a child I  never really understood exactly what they were yelling about, but  this frenzy never frightened me. I learned that politics was a passionate and exciting game,  and it was one of the few times I  saw  my father animated about something. (My mother, by contrast,  kept silent during these debates, other then to try to shut everyone up.  I knew she voted every year, but  I never once heard her utter a political opinion.)

Some of mother’s relatives were eager political commentators as well.  The family had started a cousins club where there would usually  be a meeting about  the purchase of cemetery plots in New Jersey. It was stupefying,  but there was often a vigorous political conversation over coffee and cake. Here cousin Leon, also a Communist, would do battle with Dad and my Aunt Rosalind, who was a  Jewish  outlier – a Republican!   Political oil and water, but I loved the rousing debates.

I never participated in any of these discussions. I just listened and took it all in.  But I was fascinated and drawn to the excitement of a political duel.

I got to witness full political  spectacle in full technicolor when I became a “Johnson Girl” at the 1964 Democratic National  Convention in Atlantic City. It was a political junkie’s  dream.   I rubbed shoulders with Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. And I stood just  a few feet away from  Martin Luther King, Jr. during a spontaneous interview  with him by a small group of reporters about the controversial issue of seating delegates from Mississippi.  I was a star-struck groupie.  An Adlai Stevenson sighting in a restaurant definitely trumped a view of super stars Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand who appeared at a youth rally.

The most thrilling event occurred  the night of President Johnson’s acceptance address. The “Johnson Girls” were randomly directed  to seat the delegates and I was assigned  to the New York delegation which had front row  seats right under the main podium.  I ushered in the most important  Democrats in New York State.   And because of my father, I knew all about most  of them.   I directed   “Boss” James Farley, the aristocratic Averell  Harriman, congressmen and  state senators to their seats. I knew them like a baseball fan knows his statistics: who’s in a slump and who’s on a streak, who’s up and coming and who’s headed to retirement.  And President Johnson was  less than 30 feet away!  All I could think about was how excited my Dad would be knowing that I was rubbing shoulders with his heroes. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell him.

I expected to go over all of the details with him  about  this amazing week, but I have no memory of any post convention discussion.  Because  when I arrived home, my parents  told me the news that my  beloved Uncle Jack,  who had been sick for a long time, had died while I was away.  My mother and my father had kept the news from me, not wanting to ruin what they knew was such a special time. I expressed annoyance  at first for not being told, but secretly I was glad they had waited to tell me the bad news.

My Dad died many years ago, the last decade of his life in an Alzheimer’s haze.  I don’t think as much about him any more, but when I’m watching television during  political conventions, hearing political debates or  speeches, and especially when the votes are being tallied, I feel the excitement that he experienced and passed on. It was his legacy to me.

Profile photo of Sara Gootblatt Sara Gootblatt


Tags: Political discussions
Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Khati Hendry says:

    Oh for the days when a robust political discussion wasn’t mired in conspiracy delusions! Being an engaged citizen concerned about the good of the country is a terrific legacy. We need you! Great story.

    • The delusions of the 1950’s were that the communists would take over. But although the discussions my father had were sometimes heated, they were never hostile. Somehow, that seems kind of quaint compared to the fantastical beliefs today!

  2. Wonderful story Sara! You’ve surely heard me call you my political guru – and now everyone knows your creds – Johnson Girl at the 1964 DNC, and those raucous family dinner table fights as you took it all in, fascinated by politics at an early age.

    Had there been Facebook in your father’s heyday just imagine the heater exchanges with “deluded” conservatives he might have indulged in – just as his daughter lately has been known to have!

  3. Marian says:

    Sara, your story made me smile in recognition of how my mother’s family had political discussions, although I experienced them more in the late 1960s. My mother’s family were union people with a strong socialist bent, with a few communists thrown in. It was great that your father was passionate about something, and your description of his argument with Grisha was hilarious.

  4. And welcome back to Retrospect Sara!

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    I’ve always described my mother as an “FDR Democrat”, but she was not a political being the way your father and his family were. The way you describe them sounds so thrilling, from a child’s point of view. As Dana commented, that sort of disagreement (between Democrat and Communist, for example), can no longer take place civilly. It is now a hostile exchange, frequently over social media with false claims, amplified by cable news. We live in different times.

    How thrilling that you got to be “Johnson Girl” at the 1964 convention. That sounds amazing. I’m sure your parents had a difficult time keeping their sad news from you, but didn’t want to interrupt your experience. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    I really enjoyed learning about your father’s political legacy which he shared with you. My father was also a lifelong FDR Democrat and passionate follower of politics. I’m so glad he didn’t have to live through our current Trumpian political mess. Watergate was enough for him.

  7. Suzy says:

    Your relatives and their political discussions sound very familiar to me! I had an Uncle Ed who was very much like your Uncle Grisha! Thanks for this great story, and I’m glad you found your way back to Retrospect!

  8. Susan Bennet says:

    What a lovely tribute to your father, Sara. Like Teddy Roosevelt, he “warmed both hands on the fire of life,” and that in itself surely made you proud. It is interesting that family members can observe the same news, the same events, and yet come to opposite opinions. My grandmother was a huge FDR/Democrat activist whose zeal filled her home. But when my mother returned from her first vote at age 22 (FDR’s second term) she she shocked her family by revealing her vote for Alf Landon, the Republican (along with Aunt Rosalind?). Wisely she found a Republican-leaning man to marry. It saved a lot of drama.

  9. Susan- loved your quote from TR! (he’s one of my fav Presidents)

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