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Politics Is Personal

By Nora L. Duff

Tuesday, March 17, is election day in Chicago, and it happens to fall on one of my family's favorite holidays--Saint Patrick's Day. If my father still lived here, he wouldn't be able to get to the polling place fast enough. I can picture him in the voting booth, punching holes into that flimsy card and whispering under his breath, "Green lights, blue skies," which he says anytime all the pieces of his universe fall into place. Voting and Saint Patrick's Day--the perfect combination for him, though perhaps too combustible for the rest of us.

Luckily for me, my father doesn't vote in Chicago anymore. When I voted for Harold Washington, the resulting rift between my father and me was palpable. On the phone he barely spoke. When I stopped by my parents' house in Old Town, the air was chilly, with a few cutting remarks about the sorry state of the city directed at me. Now my father is safely adrift on the plains of Nebraska, helping farmers measure snow depth in fields by wading into the white banks.

Tip O'Neill once said, "All politics is local," and you could add to that my father's motto: "All politics is personal." Political discussions at our dinner table were not for the faint of heart. My parents rarely agreed on anything. During the last years of the Vietnam war, my father taped a large world map onto the broad shade that hung in front of our French doors, so at dinnertime we could see the countries we talked about. Someone always ended up stomping out, usually my brother--he was reading Mao's little red book at the time--or one of my sisters, bawling over capital punishment.

As election day neared, the anxiety level in our house grew, especially in mayoral election years. Much of the tension came from my father's disgust with the political pundits on TV and the radio. Every evening, after Channel Five's esteemed commentator signed off with "And I am Len O'Connor," my father could be heard replying, "And you are a bastard."

At our house, election day really began the night before. Little Joe the precinct captain arrived after dinner with a six-pack of Budweiser (my father's favorite) and a large coffee. He was a tall young man with thinning blond hair and a Camel cigarette perpetually hanging from his lower lip. I never hung around while Little Joe talked precinct business with my dad. I sensed some kind of collusion between them as they analyzed the neighborhood street by street, house by house, verifying who was nailed down and what to expect the next day. My mother couldn't stand it and before long would march upstairs, believing that voting was a private matter. "Who says it's private?" my dad asked. "That's the limey in you talking."

Other than at funerals, election day was the only time I saw my father wear a tie. (He was a manager at a trucking company on the south side.) It was always the same tie, long, black, and narrow, and he had probably had it since 1953. His dress shirt was supposed to be white but had yellowed from years of sitting in the closet. Over this outfit he wore a long, shapeless raincoat with no belt, so that he looked like a young Michael Caine in one of those working-class British films.

My father insisted we children accompany him and my mother to the polling place. He insisted we dress properly, in skirts or nice slacks and especially in good shoes. My mother believed in owning and maintaining good shoes for special occasions, which were rare. I hated mine because they were never properly broken in, and they cut deep into the backs of my heels, leaving crimson stains on my once-white anklets. "I'm not wearing these shoes!" I screamed. "I feel like I'm wearing Veg-O-Matics on my feet." But my mother was unswayed. "You know your father! Wear 'em or there'll be hell to pay!"

On election morning, before we went to school, my parents led us down the street to the American Legion Hall, two kids on their flanks and two more bringing up the rear. As we neared the polling place, my father greeted the neighbors with his sly electioneering. He didn't tell people how to vote or even that they should vote; he was much more subtle than that. He'd say, "Great day to vote!" or "Think there'll be much of a turnout?" People glided by, murmuring politely as they passed.

Waiting in line, my father usually found someone a little more willing to talk. He revered Mayor Richard J. Daley, but of his successor, Michael Bilandic, he pronounced, "Get the hook!" Of longtime congressman Sidney Yates, he said, "They'll have to roll him out in a coffin." In 1979 he asked anyone standing nearby, "What do you think of that girl Jane Byrne?" Without waiting for a reply, he offered his own opinion: "I say give the kid a chance."

Afterward, as we walked to school, we pleaded with my mother to tell us how she'd cast her vote. "I'm not telling," she said. "I don't care for everyone to know my business." My dad laughed and shook her arm. "She'll vote for who I tell her to vote for!" Spoken like a true cog in the machine. My father was in a great mood and began ruminating on the state of democracy. He stopped, lit a cigarette, and looked us over. "Who runs this country?" he bellowed. Some of us opened our mouths, but he said it first: "Us!" o

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