There’s more to life than politics

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Scott RichertThe conventional wisdom advises that one should never discuss politics or religion in polite company.

My family never could abide conventional wisdom. Or perhaps (it now occurs to me, many decades later) we simply weren’t polite company. Religion was rarely a topic of discussion around Grandma and Grandpa Richert’s massive dinner table on Sunday, but politics was rarely missing.

Ten years after Richard Nixon’s resignation, Watergate was still a living reality for my family. Grandpa was a New Deal Democrat who had voted for one Republican his entire life: Richard Nixon in 1968, “and look what they did to him!” he would cry, as proof somehow that voting for Republicans was folly.

To say that the political discussions at Sunday dinner were heated is an understatement par excellence. Back in fifth grade, I was briefly suspended from school for picking a fight with a much larger and stronger boy. As a teacher tore us apart in the hall after my opponent clocked me in the forehead, she turned on him in a fury: “What did you hit him with?” “My fist,” he replied. “If you’d had a frying pan, would you have hit him with that?” she yelled, in what seemed like a non sequitur until I raised my fingers to my forehead and felt the goose egg literally growing underneath them.

The words flying around Grandma’s dinner table and over euchre in the living room afterward were the political equivalent of fists and frying pans thrown in a never-ending fight that took on new dimensions in the Reagan era but never advanced in any meaningful way up through Grandpa’s death in 1992.

And yet, underneath all the din, a more important reality lay hidden: Week after week, we were all there, enjoying Grandma’s cooking and the bounty of her garden, shooting pool with our cousins and sledding down the hill in the winter, playing euchre late into the evening, until Grandpa went to the kitchen to pop corn in bacon fat and salt in the pot that I still use today, three decades after his death.

Those political debates didn’t tear us apart. They were part of the fabric of our lives, binding us closer together. No one ever skipped Sunday dinner because of petty political differences. We knew what really mattered.

But that doesn’t mean that I never lost my way. Like my Grandpa, I’ve voted for one Republican for president in my entire life, George H.W. Bush in 1988, 20 years after Grandpa voted for Richard M. Nixon. Unlike Grandpa, I’ve never been a New Deal Democrat but a Catholic and a conservative who takes both seriously and thus have found myself unable, in good conscience, to identify with either the Democratic or Republican parties.

In August of 1990, a day or two before I returned to Washington, D.C., to continue my graduate studies in political theory at The Catholic University of America (inspired in part by those dinner-table debates), I went to visit Grandma and Grandpa. Grandpa and I were sitting on the front lawn in silence, enjoying the mere presence of each other, when out of the blue he said that he thought that President Bush was doing a pretty good job so far.

“That’s the problem,” I replied, having already come to regret my vote in 1988. “People like you are happy with what he’s doing.”

I’ve said many things in my life that I’ve wished I could take back, but few more than those words. They weren’t spoken in anger; I didn’t raise my voice; but for the first time in my life, I’d placed politics above family.

A year and a half later, Grandpa passed away in his recliner in the living room of the house he had designed and built and that he and Grandma had made into a home for their family.

We never spoke of politics again.

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.

Scott P. Richert

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.