This weekend marks both Father's Day and my dad's birthday, so in the grand Leo tradition of showing affection in odd ways I've decided to mock him publicly. My dear father was a conservative columnist for U.S. News and World Report for more than 17 years -- the 17 years that spanned my youth and early adulthood. In grade school I was my father's daughter. I threw around the term "politically correct" like normal sixth graders did Nerf balls. I accused more than one teacher of using the classroom as a platform for revisionist history used to vilify the West.
My father's an incredibly smart man -- the type of person who can answer pretty much any question asked of him from papal history to species variegation. He can expound on the ideas of any great thinker, usually with a bit of vitriol for those whom he deems the arbiters of social decline (damn Foucault). When I was 13, however, after years of appropriating his ideas, we got into a discussion about abortion and everything changed. Holy crap. If I disagreed with him about that what else was he wrong about? For weeks and months I pored over encyclopedias, articles, and books trying to decipher what I thought about affirmative action, big government, welfare, etc. and then I realized -- I was what my father had been complaining about all those years: a liberal.
Things went downhill from there. Dinner conversations that used to revolve around daily activities and upcoming plans were quickly supplanted by screaming matches over gay marriage and sex education. He used to haunt me with that contested Winston Churchill quote (which I can still hear him saying some nights as I drift off to sleep), "If you're not a liberal at 20 you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at 40 you have no brain." (As if I were in some predestined Calvinist nightmare, headed toward a future in his political shoes.)
Then I learned the true power of my father's pen. At first it seemed mild enough -- he wrote a column decrying the use of profanity in pop music citing the fact that "the F-word wafted musically through our living room" due to his 14-year-old daughter. Incidentally, the much-maligned singer was Tom Petty -- little did my father know I was holed up in my room many a night listening to NWA and their hit "F**k the Police."
Two years later I was a junior in high school and it was time to visit colleges. We saw 10 schools in five days. I had the flu and was trying to decide where I wanted to spend the next four years, but most of my energy was directed at stopping my father from asking politically charged questions at the information sessions, such as, "Why do you have separate freshman orientations for minority students?" On the other hand, I did have fun taking pictures of him in front of all the women's studies centers with his fist raised defiantly in the air. I had decided that my top two choices of schools were Brown and Wesleyan. You can imagine how that thrilled my father. He had a history of bashing the practices of a certain Ivy League School based in Providence and the only thing he hated more than Wesleyan's politics was its architecture. A week later, to my family's surprise, came a column bashing, you guessed it, all the schools we had visited. My mother freaked out and insisted I list my father's name as J.P. Leo on all my applications -- she even suggested I put his occupation down as "sculptor" cause, hey, he knew how to shape a sentence.
Then came the mail. My father returned home from the office for weeks with letters for or about me. Some were from small conservative colleges no one's ever heard of offering me admission to ease our familial tension. Some were nasty letters from my father's fans saying how horrible it was that I was putting a sweet honorable man through the torture of visiting these godless places. I replied to these letters. All of them. I explained that I was a teenager trying to forge my own way and if they had nothing better to do than harass me about my nascent decisions then they could take a flying leap.
I ended up at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, a bastion of free thought and self-exploration, well, kind of. At first I was caught up in the excitement and freedom of it all. Everyone was politically charged and everyone was liberal. I was about to vote in my first election ever and it was for president. I called my father after they declared Bush the victor. I was depressed. He asked what the split had been on campus.
"80/20," I responded.
"Only 20 percent voted for Bush?"
"No, 20 percent voted for Nader."
Of course there's a margin of error and I'm sure Bush did get some Wes votes. It tickled my father and me to no end that our family had canceled out each other's votes. Mom voted for Gore, Dad voted for Bush and I voted for Nader (I do not live in a swing state.) My father was getting more and more frustrated with the institution I had aligned myself with. The New York Times kept publishing stories about naked dorms, porn classes and transgender housing. These, of course, are reasons I loved Wesleyan, but I quickly found fatal flaws. Most of the people I met there were liberal kids from liberal families, people that had never been challenged in their views, people that toed a party line without knowing why. We got The New York Times free every day but very few students actually read it. I was peeved -- I had endured so much crap defending my views: I had been forced to argue my way into my ideas and these kids were riding along scot-free. That's when it finally occurred to me. Despite the fact that my father drove me bonkers half of the time, he had been my greatest intellectual asset thus far. A smart man with polar opposite ideas who wouldn't let me get away with anything, was there every day to challenge, debate, and prod. Not only had he argued with me, he treated me as an adult (more than I can say for some of my professors), and let me believe whatever I wanted as long as I could defend it.
My journey to the bosom of liberalism made me realize that it was my father who brought me there. Today, John Leo is pretty much my best friend. I spend far too much time with him complaining about the Mets (whom we both love and love to hate) and talking politics.
At this point I have people in my life across the political spectrum, and I think that too is due to my father. Some I fundamentally disagree with -- what attracts me to them is that they care enough to have the debate. I called my dad just now while writing to discuss our plans for this weekend and he said he knew what he wanted for Father's Day. I already bought something, so I was a little annoyed. "If you would agree with me on every issue for a year, it would be the best present I could ask for. Then you'd be on the right side of things."