On Air America today (“the left side of the dial”) I heard the super liberal Randi Rhodes admit that she had voted for Ronald Reagan. “Once,” she said, noting that Reagan was appealing because he was so positive in a time of negativity. This reminded me of how Reagan almost broke up the nascent relationship between Laurel and me.
Nascent, because this was just our second date, so there wouldn’t have been much to break up at that time. But looking back at our fourteen years of marriage, it would have been a shame if a little thing like voting for Ronald Reagan had been a deal-killer at that precarious stage of our getting-to-know-you.
After a rather traditional first dinner date, Laurel suggested that we go to the Salem Art Fair the next weekend. Later she said that this was an indication of how promising she considered me, since her many years of singlehood had taught her that you don’t want to go to a fair with someone you might want to escape from after an hour or so. A restaurant or a coffee house is better suited to a look at your watch and a quick “Oh my gosh look what time it is I’ve got to be going bye” departure.
So there we were in July 1989, walking across the grass of Salem’s Bush Park toward the Art Fair, when somehow we got talking about politics. “Somehow” doesn’t mean accidentally, now that I think about it, because this probably was one of Laurel’s usual sort-the-wheat-from-the-chaff conversation topics with a new guy, she being seriously liberal.
I didn’t know that at the time, though, so rather casually replied, “Oh, I guess I’d call myself a moderate. I’m a registered Independent now.” Now? Laurel’s Man-Jerk sensing antennae start to quiver. “So, have you always been an Independent, or have you been something else?” I hadn’t dated for eighteen years. The italics in Laurel’s question didn’t register with me. Which almost turned me into chaff.
“I was a registered Democrat at one time. I think I even was a Republican at some point.”
Republican!!! An icy chill replaces the summer heat. Laurel stops walking. She spots a picnic table and sits down on the bench. I follow her. Obviously this is serious. I instantly wish that I could have taken back my words and substituted “wife abuser” or “heroin addict” for “Republican,” since Laurel was a social worker and could have forgiven me for moral or psychological lapses—but not for this, for once having been the most despicable form of humanity of all, a Republican.
Then, the big question: “Did you vote for Reagan?” My throat went dry. I had, once. God, there I was, sitting at a picnic table with a beautiful desirable woman—long blonde hair, a cute slim figure, great dresser, intelligent, sensitive, communicative, gainfully employed, childless—and now she was poised to push me off the relationship cliff if I told the truth. Which, of course, I had to do. I’d vowed that after all the half-truths, untruths, and unsaid truths in my first marriage, I was going to let it all hang out from now on. Better to let a relationship go than found it on anything other than what I really am, and was.
“Yes, I did vote for Reagan. Does that bother you?” Oh boy, did it. We spent the next ten minutes deconstructing my Republican past. As I recall, I threw caution to the winds and admitted that I had also belonged to the downtown Salem Rotary Club for several years. A Republican Rotarian. Laurel had to come to terms with this unfamiliar beast before she was going to an art fair with him.
Eventually I reassured her that though I had once been a Reagan-voting Republican, this was an aberration and I had now come to my senses. I could tell that she wasn’t convinced, but she was willing to give me a chance. For the rest of the day I felt like I was being closely watched by the Liberal Cop, who was waiting for evidence that the Conservative Criminal hadn’t really reformed. I sweated the art fair out, and not just because it was mid-July.
The next day I started growing a beard and letting my hair grow longer. Dredged out some tie-dyed shirts from the back of the closet. Hid my Rotary Club directory. Sent away for a “Don’t Hug Your Kid With Nuclear Arms” sticker to put on my BMW car bumper. Decided to hold off on showing Laurel my signed copy of a Reagan-for-Governor program that I got at a campaign rally in California (my mother was active in Republican politics, so I was able to shake Ronnie’s hand and get his autograph). Wisely waited until we were married to let that additional skeleton out of the closet.