Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dad's Politics: a 100-year-old perspective

11/5/08 Chatterbox Update
Betty Kaiser

Presidential elections always trigger memories of my dad who would have been 100 years old this year. A lifelong Democrat — married to a Republican — he took his politics seriously and religiously voted the party line. Ronald Reagan (originally a Democrat) was the great exception to his rule.

Dad often compared presidential candidates to Harry Truman— a fellow Missourian. They were both good old country boys who knew poverty up close and personal. Both toiled on hardscrabble farms under difficult fathers before becoming successes later in life.

As the oldest of five children, dad’s youth was like a story line out of a movie. He was forced to quit school in the 6th grade to take care of his younger siblings after his mother died of tuberculosis. His dad was what is politely called a “ne’er do well.” A wanderer, he never could get his act together after his wife died.

So Dad left school as a 12-year old to literally become the head of his family. Through necessity and sheer grit he managed to feed five kids and keep a roof over their heads. Always ambitious, he would take any job offered him and there weren’t many in rural Missouri.

He met my mother (a visiting city girl) as a young man after his siblings were grown. To the horror of his future in-laws, the couple married after a few days courtship and moved to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, dad had active tuberculosis. One of his lungs was collapsed and he was confined to a sanitarium for three years.

“Slim,” as his childhood friends called him, came out of the hospital weak but ready to go to work. Grandpa, a former Union Oil employee, had just the job for him in his “oil field junkyard.”

The Great Depression was upon the country and as oil companies shut down drilling operations, grandpa offered to remove their rusty, old, used pipe for free. He hauled it, cut, scrapped and cleaned it; then waited for the fields to start pumping again.

When they did, he was ready to sell. Dad became his roustabout. He left home before dawn, drove long distances, worked all day installing and pulling pipe and then came home to start all over again. I never heard him complain.

As the business prospered, grandpa stepped aside and dad moved up to CEO. Smart as a whip, turned out in a 3-piece suit this man with a grade school education became the go-to guy in his industry. With his twinkling eyes, good-old-boy smile and a firm handshake, his word was his bond. He took the company international and dealt with Mitsubishi Co. at a time the Japanese trusted very few Americans.

Dad lived President Truman’s presidential credo “The buck stops here.” Once you met him, you knew that you could trust Burl Varner. He was quick to share credit for successes, take responsibility for errors, admit mistakes and move on. He didn’t hold grudges but once burned, he was both aware and wary.

In 1966 he did the unthinkable and voted for Ronald Reagan as governor of Calif. As a small businessman, he thought that government was getting too big and messing unnecessarily in citizen’s lives. On that theme, he became a Reagan Democrat.

In 1980 we were having a political discussion about Ronald Reagan running for president. “Why would anyone want to be president?” I asked rhetorically. “Oh, I would,” he said matter-of-factly.

Until then, I had never realized that the American dream was dad’s dream. Anyone could become president. Even a poor boy from Missouri. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t a career politician. Presidents came from many backgrounds — why not his?

Last month Chuck and I visited the Ronald Reagan Library with two of our grandsons. In a way, it was an introduction to them of the ideals of the great-grandfather that they never knew. Reagan had achieved my dad’s American dream.

Sited on 100 acres in Simi Valley, the Reagan Library is one of the largest of the 12 presidential libraries. It houses the original Air Force One, the Marine One Helicopter and a portion of the Berlin Wall. Outside, a F-14 “Tomcat” celebrates Reagan’s “Peace through Strength” initiative.

The theatres and galleries chronicle with humor and dignity Reagan’s journey to the presidency. We were reminded that early on he was a member of the U.S. Army Reserve Calvary and during WWII the Army Air Force; of his great love for Nancy and the outdoors; the assassination attempt on his life in 1981; his hobby of model boat building (!); his unfailing good humor, and his tough talk for tough times during the Cold War that brought down the Berlin wall.

Dubbed the “Great Communicator,” he was eminently quotable. Some of his memorable lines:
“The taxpayer: that’s someone who works for the federal government but doesn’t have to take the civil service exam.”
“Here’s my strategy on the cold war: we win, they lose.”
“Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall!”

All in all, it was an inspiring day but Air Force One was the highlight for Paul and Matthew. Poised for takeoff, it radiated history in motion. It served seven presidents beginning with President Nixon. We boarded this “Flying White House” and tried to imagine it filled with presidents, their chief of staff, military aides, security, the press and yes, the so-called “nuclear football.”

Today we have a new president-elect — number 44. Due to early deadlines, I don’t know whether it’s John McCain or Barrack Obama. Dad liked straight talk in his friends and his presidents. One of his favorite lines was “Why lie when the truth works better?” So I’m not even sure whom dad would have voted for.

Only time will tell if our new president will pass my dad’s 100-year-old-good-old-boy litmus test of leadership through honesty.

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places
family, and other matters of the heart. 


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