January 17, 2006

Drinking with the Enemy

Maybe (some) Republicans aren't so bad after all.

John Harlow

On Friday morning, I got an email from Andrew saying that he'd get into town sometime during the middle of next week. I stuck to my guns and allowed the email to languish, unreplied-to, in my inbox over the weekend. The next Tuesday, he left a message on my cellphone.

Hey, buddy! What's up? Hope you're doing well. Don't know if you got my email, but I'm actually going to be out in San Francisco tomorrow night, and I'd love to get together and buy you a few drinks. All right, dude. Talk to you soon.

I now had something of a problem on my hands. It's not that I didn't want to meet Andrew for drinks. On the contrary, I knew we'd have a great time, laugh for three or four hours, and probably end up getting far drunker than we should on a Wednesday night. The problem was something else.

Allen Ginsberg
What Would Allen Do?
During my freshman year of college, Andrew and I were roommates—two 18-year olds, randomly paired together by the Office of Student Life and forced to sleep in the same medium-sized closet for the next nine months. We were different in our backgrounds, interests, and cultural tastes. Yet, for some reason, we liked each other immediately. At the time, our differences struck me as funny and endearing rather than divisive. My best friend from high school had given me a large black-and-white photograph of Allen Ginsberg when I left home that summer, and during that first week of school I hung it prominently above my desk. Above the desk directly across from it hung Andrew's framed poster entitled, "Famed Country Clubs of Cape Cod." Never did I consider these decorating items incompatible.

Although our differing sensibilities led us into different peer groups over the next four years, we remained close friends throughout. Our unlikely friendship probably sprung from our common circumstances: We were both young and friendly kids, far from home and anxious but hopeful about the grand, collegiate experience unfolding all around us. That, and a shared enthusiasm for heavy drinking.

My problem is not that Andrew and I don't get along. Andrew is a funny, genuine, and good-hearted guy, and I expect I'll always enjoy his company. My problem is that Andrew is a Republican. And I am apprehensive, for obvious reasons, about having drinks with a Republican.

Cocktails at the country club?
When I first met Andrew in September 2000, befriending a Republican didn't seem like a big deal to me. At the time, Republicans seemed most of all a punch line: a faceless mass of frustrated, sweaty, bald guys powerless to curb the rise of gay rights, responsible social spending, and rap music being played loudly in the public arena. The only conservative Christian I remember being aware of at the time is Aaron Sufron, the home-schooled kid on my club soccer team. He never spoke and always wore white Umbros.

Of course, absolutely everything changed within the year. All along, the GOP had been terrible and powerful and astonishingly frightening. They had just been (kind of) quiet about it. Now they controlled everything and were moving full steam ahead with dismantling 65 years of progressive change. Like my like-minded friends, I began an aggressive campaign of childish retribution against whomever I could find to blame. On the highway, I chased down cars with "W" bumper stickers, and cut them off in busy traffic. I berated innocent television sets when they had the audacity to display our sneering Commander-in-Chief. I am not proud of it, but I even peed on a car door handle or two. Our country was going to hell, and I was extremely angry. It also didn't help that I had voted for Nader, and was therefore required to punch myself in the face three to four times a week.

When my former roommate called me that Tuesday, I hadn't seen him in well over a year. It had been a long and bitter period. After graduating from school, I went to work for several Democratic candidates in the 2004 election. By this time, knocking the administration out of office was not only my political obsession, but also my personal one. I had developed an intense and powerful hatred for anything associated with current Republican leadership. And when we lost in '04, things got even uglier.

While initially excited about seeing my old friend, I just didn't see how I could hang out with someone who was connected, indirectly at least, with something that had caused me so much anger and frustration for years. Maybe I had always been wrong about him back in college. For all I knew, this guy had spent the past 18 months conspiring with a secret country-club cabal to eliminate school lunches and ban homosexuals from receiving driver's licenses; when you haven't seen someone in so long, it's easy to imagine all kinds of things.

Still, Andrew's phone message sounded innocent. Ignoring both an email and phone call seemed a little harsh, even if I had a vast reserve of moral indignation on my side. I listened to the voicemail three or four times and then decided to call him back. At the least, I figured, I'd let the guy buy me a couple of drinks and then give him a piece of my mind. We chatted for a couple minutes and agreed to meet at 9:30 the next night.

I was a few minutes late when I arrived at the appointed bar, even though it's only three blocks from my apartment. Andrew was there, sitting at a table with a huge golden retriever grin and two pints of Stella Artois. The kid might believe in trickle-down economics, but he was always generous with his friends. Andrew stood as I walked over to the table, and we gave each other the kind of hug that's somehow warm in spite of the fact that both men are slapping each other uncomfortably hard on the back. I slid into the table next to Andrew. He smiled across the table with genuine excitement. For some reason, my mind flashed back to our freshman spring and the time I had convinced Andrew to take his first bong hit with me and some other friends. I smiled back.

Over the next few hours, as we told stories and laughed, our conversation never really drifted toward politics. In my less bitter college days, Andrew and I had often had friendly debates, but not that night. There simply wasn't time. We were too busy talking about our new lives, discussing what our friends were up to, and remembering this or that event from college. Once, he asked me how it had been working on the campaign. I told him about him about how much I enjoyed working on something that I felt so passionately about and found so meaningful. He smiled and said he was impressed. We left it at that.

I realized, over the course of the evening, that the conversation wasn't all that necessary, either. Having gone a year and a half without seeing Andrew, I may have let my imagination run a little wild with speculation. But I've always known where the guy stands. He likes school vouchers and privatizing everything. He trusts the people in charge of military spending. But he doesn't hate poor people, and he doesn't believe religion should be taught in schools. He's not a racist or a sexist or a homophobe. He even believes that global warming exists. For reasons I don't understand, he just hasn't figured out yet that this kind of reasonableness is completely incompatible with voting for the current Republican leadership. Debating the issues never seems to get us too far, because he (almost) agrees with me on most of them.

I suppose my real problem isn't exactly that Andrew happens to be a Republican. My problem, more precisely, is that I really like him anyway. I've poured all my energy, my emotion, and my meager savings into defeating a Republican agenda that I am certain is unspeakably damaging to America as well as the world at large. Yet, in the end, I don't really care that Andrew probably voted for Bush. (I haven't asked him, and he is definitely smart enough not to tell me.) I care deeply in the sense that if more guys like him had voted the other way, we wouldn't be in the phenomenally awful mess that we now find ourselves in. But I don't really like him any less because of it. Maybe I should, but I don't.

And he's probably not the only one. Don't get me wrong: The Republican base is certainly filled with more than its share of undesirables. After all, this is the party that brought you McCarthyism, opposition to the Civil Rights Amendment, and David Duke. But there are at least a few decent people in there, too. And frustrations and bitterness aside, I am willing to try and befriend this small number of lost, tragically confused, decent people. I may wonder what the hell is wrong with them, but I'll at least sit down have a few beers with them. I can make no promises, however, about the state of their car door handles.

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Article by John Harlow

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