When I was a kid, one of the other boys in the neighborhood was mildly retarded -- not enough to qualify for our mercy, but quite enough to serve as the butt of our jokes. Now and then our scoutmaster, Mr. Gainey, would, in his gentle way, tell us to lay off Alan for a while. He never deluded himself that it would last for more than an hour, but he knew, too, that Alan needed that occasional hour of being treated almost as if he were human. I won't tell you howI feel about myself when I think back on all that, but I will say that, with men like Mr. Gainey in the world, I don't demand further proof that there is a God. There just is.

I quit teasing Alan the day his father drove several of us to a football game. Alan's father was perfectly amiable to everyone -- except Alan. Never, ever, have I seen a father treat a son that way: screaming, cursing, insulting -- and in the strangest way, too, alternating pleasantries to us with sudden, hoarse rages or throat-tearing violence at Alan, whom he called an "idiot" on the slightest provocation. I think more than one boy in that car realized Alan didn't need any more problems from us.

I don't know whether his father's rages were the cause or result of Alan's mental and emotional immaturity. But the hellish hour I spent confined in that car was certainly my squirmiest lesson in the special bitterness that can exist between people who ought to (and maybe do) love each other. On a more bearable scale, it happens to most of us.

In all the arguments about whether the country is going "left" or "right," I find myself thinking less of an ideological continuum than ofparents and children. A country is like a parent, as people have always realized, pater and patria making the point etymologically. And though we sentimentalize things a good deal, the truth is that the relations between people andnation, like those between parents and children,suffer constant and complex strains. Sometimes they go bad altogether. I wonder whether Alan ever had an affectionate word from his father; I wonder if they speak now.

Americans used to take a kind of filial pride in America, like the little boy who knows his dad is the smartest, strongest, best manin the world. In the '60s, when the baby boomfinally hit adulthood and lowered all sorts of averages, the country found itself confronted witha kind of mass adolescence. As every father knows, adolescence is the time when your son begins to suspect somebody elsemight just be able to whip you, and probably ought to. Going"left" was a way of implying the latter. The nation's children were discovering that everyone else's parents were nicer.

In those days, the children were encouraged to express their feelings. We are a country that believes it's always best to talk these things out. We disapprove of Alan's father, but we'd think it was, well, healthy if Alan were to call the old man an idiot. We think parents can take nearly anything, and probably ought to.

When I was a kid, naturally enough, I tended to take the kid's point of view. Now that I'm older and have kids of my own, I can see both sides, so I favor the parents. "Honorthy father and thy mother": King Lear types may think it's only "natural" to honor them, but if it had been so natural the commandment would never have been needed. But needed it was, just as much as "Thou shalt not steal." It contravenes certain inclinations.

Tocqueville marveled at the way democracy had shaped even the American family. There was less respect but more affection between American than European parents and children, he noted -- and he decided it was betterthat way, all in all. It meant more sass, but a greater likelihood of final reconciliation.

What looks like a shift to the "right" in America is really (though I'm all for it) a widespread realization that the old man wasn't so bad after all. Not the hero we thought when we were small, maybe, but worth honoring. It'sbeen a bad year, I'm happy to note, for those candidates who have tried to peddle the moral tantrums of '60s adolescence. I hope it's been a good year for Alan, wherever he is; andI hope he has forgiven people like me.