An uber-conservative country doctor from the heartland says we need Obama
I went to a microscopic Northeast liberal arts college, Simon’s Rock, in the mid-to-late 70’s. During my time there, the 60’s died. Our first prom featured naked people in body paint, guys dressed as nuns, gay couples. Our last, after Reagan’s election, was limos and corsages, Barbie and Ken, and no same-sex couples. It was a wrenching change to go through in three years.
Although I was a lefty, a ‘red diaper baby’ in fact, I always had friends from all social and political spectrums: a crew of apolitical and very tough girls from inner-city Detroit, a shaggy hippy from Manchester England, another crew of pothead ski-bums from all over, and my friend Karl.
Karl was from Altoona Pennsylvania, the heartland of America, and had an ingrown suspicion of people like me, people from New York or Boston or Chicago or L.A. He was beyond straight-arrow. He actually had a pocket protector, and, I think even a slide rule (calculators were just becoming affordable then). He had very short hair, and always wore button-down shirts. He must have worn jeans at times, yet I can’t remember ever seeing him in anything but pressed slacks.
Karl and I would argue endlessly about the Vietnam war, which had just ended, about Reaganomics, or ‘trickle down’ economics, about the ‘depravity’ of the free-love culture that seemed to being dying out in front of us. He was doctrinaire and stoic in his beliefs, as he was usually a minority of one at the little parties I had in my dorm room. My hippie friends would buttonhole me later and ask me how I could possibly be friends with such a right-wing Republican blow-hard.
But I liked Karl. He was earnest, moral, ethical. He had that German-American belief in hard work and honesty that I bought into – which meant, I guess, that I wasn’t that good of a hippie myself, though my hair was down to my shoulders, and god knows I loved smoking pot and listening to Frank Zappa.
We lost touch several years after college. But suddenly last year, now in my late forties, I started re-connecting with friends from high-school and college. One was Ellen, who is now a professor at City College here in New York. She and I got to talking about our mutual friend Karl, and we decided to find him.
So, glory-be-to-the-Internet, it wasn’t hard. I found him in Pennsylvania, in the mid-west part of it, not far from where he grew up.
I called him up and we talked for awhile. Unlike my life of sloppy improvisation, Karl had had a plan, and he’d stuck to it: He was indeed the small-town General Practitioner he’d always intended to be. He also did a stint in the E.R. once a month, as service to his community, and to keep his skills sharp. He had a small practice, and had married his office manager, whose name I can’t remember, but it was something like Alma-Mae. They had a nice house, some cats, and were active in the community. I got a sort of Norman Rockwell picture from it all, and the whole-cloth of that, I assumed, also included a strong commitment to the Republican Party.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. "No," Karl said. "When you’re a G.P. like I am, and you see how people are struggling to pay their insurance, to buy their prescription drugs, to wrench hospice care out of their tight-fisted HMOs, you can’t support the Republicans." My head exploded. I’d dreaded a political argument, but Karl had come over from the ‘Dark Side’! "You know", he said, "all of the G.P.s I know are voting Obama. We all feel that this country desperately needs Obama, that it can’t possibly afford another four years of these policies for the rich. The middle class will cease to exist with four more years of this. But it’s funny: all of the specialists I know, especially the plastic surgeons, the sports surgeons, the boutique doctors, they’re all supporting McCain. They’re making money hand over fist, and all they care about is tax breaks and lower malpractice premiums."
We talked some more, about my kids, and our hopes for the future of this country – which were amazingly consonant, and then I hung up and sat in wonder. My old friend Karl, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, an acolyte of Reagan, was supporting Obama with a fervor that matched my own! They say you become more conservative as you get older, and in my case, that may be true; I am no longer an Anarcho-Syndicalist-Pacifist, as I once was. But maybe it’s more complex than that. Maybe you see gray more, and black and white less as you age. Karl grew up in a 99% white town, almost totally racially and ethnically homogeneous, German immigrants who made the American Dream work, and then watched it slip away in the intervening century. I grew up in the roiling stewpot of New York City, the first Jew in an Arab neighborhood, going to PS 29 in Brooklyn with every creed and color you could imagine. Obama’s not such a big leap for me, but a tremendous one for Karl, and he has made it bravely, propelled by his convictions of what is right and what is wrong, by what he sees in his waiting room every day. And he’s never looked back.