JIM DODSON: The Wisdom of Some Good Soup
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Two friends and I met for lunch the other day at our favorite place in town.
We hadn't seen each other in months. But I could pretty well guess what was on their minds.
One is a dedicated Republican, the other a determined Democrat. The election was exactly one week away.
It was time for our second semiannual Soup Summit.
The caf where we meet is a bakery that specializes in fine baked goods and even better homemade soups -- six hearty offerings daily plus a generous slice of bread, generally something to suit any taste bud or political persuasion. Soup, as our moms long ago pointed out, is good for the soul.
Personally, I also look forward to the frosted-theme cookie at lunch's end, too. But then, I'm just a big kid and natural independent voter at heart.
Wild Oats is a commendably democratic eatery, exactly the kind of joint I wish every American town still had anchoring its main square, where neighbors with divergent views can sit and have a civilized discussion on the news of the week and the issues of the day over delicious ham and split pea, Hungarian goulash, or Thai vegan with rice.
A sad but thought-provoking essay in The New York Times last Sunday suggests that Americans' political views have generally become so polarized by war and entrenched by years of partisan bickering and finger-pointing from both aisles of Congress that it has actually become fashionable for dinner hosts to request that their guests refrain from using the dirty "P" word at the table.
In today's highly charged political climate, says the author, even among close friends and family members, growing numbers of Americans feel it's far wiser to keep mum on politics and preserve the harmony of the moment than express a personal opinion and risk losing a friend or catching a hard sesame roll in the eye. Better to save one's true feelings, the theory goes, for the safety and comfort of like-minded souls than exercise your right to free and civilized speech.
"One result," wrote Anne E. Kornblut, "is that public discourse seems to be dimming, with people returning to the manners of an earlier time when discussing politics was considered rude rather than enlightening."
Feed Our Political Souls
Every two years, about this time, my friends and I convene over Wild Oats soup to feed both our souls and the old political junkies in us. It's kind of a kick and good clean fun because the game within a game is to see if either Bill or Rachel can persuade me to "come back" to either of the respective major parties. I'm always interested to listen to another informed opinion, of course, and perfectly willing to be persuaded to re-examine my views during any particular political season, especially if frosted-theme cookies are somehow involved.
Rachel is a true-blue Democrat, a college professor and environmental activist who cut her teeth organizing for Jimmy Carter, a proud liberal who feels "King George Bush" and his attempts to make Iraq a fledgling outpost of new democracy smacks of the worst form of colonial empire-building -- compromising America's moral integrity and standing in the world. She may be right.
Bill, on the other hand, is a refugee from Wall Street who once raised money for Ronald Reagan, a longtime conservative Republican and who feels we ignore a runaway federal deficit, broken borders, and the mounting health insurance and Social Security crises at our peril. He's a former military pilot who served with distinction in Vietnam and felt passionately about going into Iraq, citing the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of rogue states or terrorists. He might be right, too.
Voting for My Dog, Riley
The math of my own political persuasion is a little harder to calculate.
I am, in a sense, your classic centrist political fence-sitter who can find something to agree with in each party's platform, probably because, like a classic Wild Oats goulash, I'm flavored with a pinch of everything in the spice hutch.
I grew up in a conservative Southern family that encouraged independent thinking but had been generally Republican since the days of Lincoln, then went off to college just as Watergate hit. I became a fan of Sen. Sam Ervin, registering as a Democrat for my first presidential election.
Several years later, I covered both Carter's Quixotic presidency and the Reagan Revolution. I liked Carter's quiet spiritual strength and Reagan's sunny optimism -- traits that recalled Lincoln, Ike and a pair of Roosevelts at their best. About this time, I reregistered as a Republican.
I traveled extensively with the senior Bush, too, and found him to be a decent and pragmatic fellow who understood history's valuable lessons and was eager to take the counsel of wise and experienced policy hands.
Then came the New Millennium. By then, something had changed. We had wedge issues and a religious minority shaping the national agenda, Washington lawyers arguing over hanging chads, a president-elect who boasted of valuing loyalty over competence, a nation taken hostage by attack ads and talk radio hosts.
We also had a vanishing middle class, Democrats with no discernible message, and a national media embarrassingly fixated on the sex habits of a president.
If 9/11 changed America, it changed our politics, too -- introducing the gospel of fear. The America I grew up in -- and read about in books -- never feared anything. So two years ago, I finally gave up on the Grand Old Party, changed my voter registration to "Indepen-dent," and voted for my dog Riley.
Riley's a good dog who listens to diverse opinions well and embraces real family values. I believe he would have made an excellent president, except possibly for when he had to interrupt an important news conference to chase a squirrel off the White House lawn. Squirrels drive Riley nuts. He thinks chasing them is good for America.
Let's Start Over
During our first Soup Summit, Bill and Rachel were both appalled to think I'd "thrown away" my vote on a family dog.
They simply couldn't understand that I was weary of political demonizing, attack ads, obscene money grabs and people choosing party over country.
They seemed to have no idea what I was getting at when I asked over a rather bold ginger-apple butternut squash soup why we -- a nation of 300 million fairly bright souls -- seemed to be utterly incapable of putting forth our best and brightest for national office, whatever the party affiliation.
Finally, they thought I was fooling around when I proposed that Congress be fully dissolved and everyone sent home so we could start over with a new Continental Congress made up of dental hygenists and village barbers.
PTA moms and dads who volunteer to coach youth sports would also be high on my list of prospective recruits to the New American Congress, as would Sunday school teachers, traffic cops, Habitat workers, high school history teachers, retired military and Warren Buffet.
This year, truthfully, I tuned out of the election noise pretty early -- and nature herself took a firm hand in making sure the old political junkie in me stayed fully reformed.
Last Friday, I voted by absentee ballot for one terrific Democrat, one very promising Republican and three independent candidates before heading out to give a talk to the state gardening convention in Camden. On the way home, a tropical storm struck and knocked out the power on our forested hilltop for 36 hours.
We spent most of the weekend living in the 19th century, by woodstove and candlelight. It was rather nice. During the blackout, I managed to finish reading Doris Goodwin's marvelous book "Team of Rivals" and was moved by the way this country, on the eve of its own dark ordeal, torn asunder by sectarian interests and partisan bickering, somehow managed to find a leader for the ages.
The very idea gave me some hope. The thought of homemade soup made me very hungry.
Bringing Out Our Best
So imagine my surprise when I got to Wild Oats last Monday noon -- hours before I set off for my happy home in the Sandhills -- and found Bill and Rachel so annoyed with their respective parties even they were making noises about leaving the party in favor of something new.
"Did you hear what John Kerry said last night about the troops being stuck in Iraq? It boggles the mind!" fumed Ra-chel, the true-blue Democrat over her surprisingly hearty mushroom and beef soup. "He claims it was a botched joke. But how would you feel if your son or daughter was in Iraq? This guy claims to speak for Democrats!"
"No worse than Rush Lim-baugh attacking Michael J. Fox for his stance on stem cells," came back red-meat Republican Bill over his Southwest meatless chili. "What's this country coming to when a guy who is suffering from a disease is ridiculed for standing up for his beliefs. Every time I think we can't go lower -- we find a way to do just that."
Not surprisingly, I had very little to add to this year's Soup Summit. For one thing, I was too busy eating to talk.
So while my friends went on venting about each major party's lack of a unifying vision and the general absence of civility in our national dialogue -- oddly in agreement that some kind of big change is both needed and rapidly coming -- I quietly devoured my navy bean with Swiss chard and thought about how, to paraphrase our moms and Mr. Lin-coln, a good soup really can bring out the better angel of ourselves.
For what it's worth, I decided on a frosted moon cookie to end this year's summit.
Jim Dodson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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