My son the libertarian

By David Tell
Monday, November 18, 1996; 8:10 AM

Editor's note: The following essay was first published in The Weekly Standard on November 18, 1996.

E. J. Dionne's Election Day Washington Post column was positively Whitmanesque, an evocation of the envelope-stuffing communitarian politics of his Massachusetts childhood. Casting an American ballot is inherently good, he reminded me. Dionne even takes his kids to the polls with him, the better to pass on the faith.

I like E. J. Dionne. When I reviewed his latest book in these pages back in March, I pointed out that he is smart, serious, and good with words. Then I dumped all over him. It was (I thought) a tough review, and I added Dionne to the growing list of people I've criticized in print -- and therefore fear meeting face to face.

Bad luck: In August, at the Republican national convention in San Diego, we were introduced. But E. J., who I thought might haul off and punch me right in the bazoo, instead greeted me warmly. I was, and am, grateful for the courtesy.

On Election Day, I thought I could begin to return the favor. I would vote in the full spirit of Dionnism, with an optimistic spring in my step -- even though I am a weirdly jinxed voter. In three successive elections since 1988, I had not cast a single successful ballot, even for school board. Big deal, I told myself last Tuesday morning, the Washington Post sitting in my lap. Tally ho! Let's try again -- for E. J.

It didn't work. First off, for their own good, I had to leave the kids behind. My 4-year-old, Oliver, has unformed politics. He likes Ross Perot because "he's crazy and he has big ears." But if I took Ollie to the polls, I figured, I'd have to take his older brother, Nicholas, too. And Nick, I have concluded, is already dangerously overexposed to politics. He's only 8 years old, and more like me than I am.

"Democrats suck," my beloved first child announced one afternoon about a month ago. No, they don't, I said levelly, and mind your tongue. "But you're a Republican," he replied. "You think Democrats suck." At this I'm afraid I lost my temper. If my son is going to have thuggish, blockheaded political opinions, let him go get some of his own. Mom's a Democrat, I sternly reminded him. That brought him up short.

Too short, in fact. A couple of weeks later, Nick came home with the results of his elementary school's mock presidential election. Clinton beat Dole, 365 to 75. Perot got 13 votes. Harry Browne, the Libertarian, got 3. I was suspicious. Who voted for Browne, I wondered? Two fifth graders, Nick said. Who else? "And me," he chirped. "See, Libertarians don't believe in taxes. And if there are no taxes, there'll be no street lights. It won't be safe for the buses to bring us to school, and I'll get to stay home."

I let him practice staying home on the real Election Day and went off to vote on my own. All for naught. In his victory speech that night, Clinton referred to his political opponents as "those who sought to stop America's progress with the politics of personal destruction." It wasn't a fair description of me. I don't mind saying I think Bill Clinton is smart, serious, and good with words. It's just that I also think he's a rat-faced liar and a wretched president. So I voted for Dole.

Connie Morella is the incumbent congresswoman for the Maryland neighborhood we moved into this summer. She's the kind of Republican who votes with Clinton on partial-birth abortion. Her upscale constituents love her. They care about pocketbook issues, not social ones. A change in tax rates, they understand, might mean the crucial difference between remodeling your kitchen with a $ 3,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator and just scraping by. I thought about this for a moment. I voted against her.

But I still want a Sub-Zero refrigerator as much as the next guy, so I voted for the tax-cutting "Ficker Amendment" to our county's charter. I first became aware of Robin Ficker, the amendment's author, in 1986 at a Washington Bullets basketball game. I was seated 10 rows back from the visiting bench. Five rows in front of me was Ficker. All game long, through a megaphone, he hollered that New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing was an ape. And worse. Ewing is seven feet tall and must weigh three million pounds. Why he didn't reach around and kill his tormentor is beyond me. Maybe, during pre-game warmups, before I arrived, Ficker had shouted that Ewing was smart, serious, and good with words.

By eleven o'clock the night of the election, it was apparent that, once again, every one of my votes -- even the ones for school board -- had come a cropper. It's depressing, being a complete and constant loser. While the rest of the family soundly slept, I fished E. J.'s morning column out of the recycle bin and reread it. It was everything I remembered: intelligent, responsible, well-written. This time, though, for some reason, it made me want to puke.

© 1996 The Washington Post Company