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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Political parties aren't genetic

Published: Sunday, Nov. 11 2012 10:18 p.m. MST

I grew up in a staunchly Republican family where being patriotic was the law.

We wore matching flag shirts in crowded public places. We said the Pledge of Allegiance with gusto. We visited every major War of Independence battleground on the Eastern Seaboard at least twice.

My dad was in the military, and we spent our summers with him on active duty, hopping between posts and bases, shopping in the PX and the BX. I always got a little thrill seeing him salute other officers, and watching them salute him in return.

My dad memorized and used to recite the Declaration of Independence on my answering machine, and to this day, the message on his answering machine is a gruff, but impassioned, "Please leave a message and God bless America."

In 1978, my dad unsuccessfully ran for office in Oklahoma as a Republican challenging the Democrat-heavy (at the time) state senate. He printed signs and rubber erasers that said "Vote Choate" and spent nine months pounding the campaign trail. That was years before I was born, but I remember seeing the signs in our basement, and playing with mounds of leftover Vote Choate erasers.

For most of my life, there were two enlarged, framed pictures hanging in our entryway — one of George H.W. Bush and one of Barbara Bush, each of them posing with my sisters in Sunday dresses, grinning from ear to ear. Those photos, snapped at a campaign rally in 1984 when Bush was running for re-election as vice president with Ronald Reagan, are some of my dad's prized possessions.

This election, he even composed songs in praise of Mitt Romney (one tune, but six different versions) and turned them into ringtones for phones.

But despite my dad's strong political leanings, he always encouraged his children to be seekers of truth, to question everything and to think for ourselves. When I became old enough to register my own political opinions and vote, I didn't register as a Republican. I wasn't a Democrat, either, but I voted for them, depending on the issue.

At first, I felt like a rebel going against all of those years of GOP exposure. And then, I felt conflicted — I didn't identify with either party, but my dad felt so strongly that his party's path was the way to avoid our country's destruction.

And so, with all of this, and all of the images of elephants and stars I grew up with for most of my childhood, I was shocked to find out that my dad's mom, Fleeta, who died before I was born, was a Democrat. And so was her husband.

I immediately wondered if my dad's choice to become a Republican was anything like my own political path — part rebellion, part sincerity, part uncertainty. And I considered for a moment what all of those years would have been like if we'd been a different household — blue instead of red, pins with donkeys instead of elephants, pictures of Jimmy Carter instead of Bush. It was inconceivable.

It wasn't a matter of conservative values vs. liberal values — in those days in Oklahoma, the state was extremely conservative and predominately Democrat. The Democrats were even more conservative than the Republicans, my dad says, and the only way to have a vote that mattered was to join the ruling party.

I wonder what party my grandmother would affiliate with today. I wonder what she would think about this election.

For my dad's part, he's disappointed that his candidate didn't win this time around. But my dad has some experience with life after losing the race. It's OK, he says.

"A life in politics gives up every holiday, night and weekends to campaign and beg for money — for life," he said this week when I asked him about his experience. "It's not really very attractive as a career move."

There's more to life than politics, he says — and on that point, I couldn’t agree with him more.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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