Last week’s column, “Elections distressing for military families,” was my attempt to explain the visceral connection military families have to Sen. John McCain. It generated a surprising number of reader comments, including a letter to the editor (“Distressing column”) in Wednesday’s paper.
Being a McCain supporter wins you few friends these days.
During the campaign I was reluctant to share my preference for president with the public. But why? I have shared my opinion on basically everything else — from mothers-in-law to the war in Iraq to inflatable sleds (won me no fans in the toy industry) — with readers, so why not my support for John McCain?
Why didn’t I have a McCain-Palin sign in my front yard?
The answer lies somewhere in my predicament straddling two notoriously stereotyped groups: journalists and the military. Oh, and also the fear of our house getting egged.
“Sarah, you’re in the media, so I bet you’re a liberal, right?” people say. And then, “No wait, you’re a military family, so you must be conservative.”
I was once kicked off an online forum of professional writers because I wrote that it is “hard to be a conservative in an industry that I suspect is largely liberal.” Yes, a forum for writers — people who usually support freedom of speech and expression — banned me from their group for making this “controversial” statement.
Which is not to say that I’m met with completely open arms in military circles. I am, after all, still a journalist. When a reporter from The New York Times was doing a feature on me and wanted to observe me speaking to a group of young military wives, you would have thought I was trying to bring Satan himself on the base.
If I’ve been suspicious of the media’s motives, the military, you might say, has been just as suspicious of mine. Beyond the labels, however, I am just a mom who writes — OK, so I’m an outspoken mom who writes, but still — which is why one reader’s response accusing me of not having my priorities straight because I feed my children chicken nuggets (a clear correlation to priorities) especially thrust a dagger into my heart.
Of all the complaints readers sent, the majority were about my assumption that a candidate who has served in the military is better suited to be president. A close second: my supposed assertion that John Kerry did not serve honorably. Not true. The column simply offered up the controversy as an example of a candidate’s service being called into question.
There is an old saying in the military that goes like this, “We [the military] are protecting democracy, not practicing it.” It is funny, but also true in many ways. The military dictates where my husband will live, where he will fight (it doesn’t matter whether he agrees with the mission or not), how he will behave (on duty or off), and even how he will wear his hair. The military is the last institution that can discriminate based on weight, eyesight, disabilities, moral character and basically anything else that it deems not conducive to the mission.
For all its control, however, the military as a whole does not select its leader, even though the new president directly affects the military’s mission and becomes every service man or woman’s new boss. The people elect a leader and that leader commands the military.
Commanding the military is not a president’s only job, but it is one of the most important. In this regard, military service is not a prerequisite, but it certainly helps earn service men and women’s trust.
What went largely unnoticed in last week’s column, however, was my attempt to unite. Yes, unite, by explaining that the disappointment of McCain supporters was not sour grapes but an emotional reaction to losing, just as, I assume, celebration on the Obama side was not “gloating,” but a sincere emotional response to winning. All politics and political parties aside, Election Day is quite emotional.
In July, I had the opportunity to sit down with Michelle Obama and interview her for a military-spouse magazine. Although I disagree with almost all of her husband’s plans for the military, I found Mrs. Obama to be exceptionally warm, friendly and intelligent. She and I chatted about being working mothers. She said she was proud of me, and I said I appreciated her humor and outspokenness. I would love to be Mrs. Obama’s neighbor and have tea in her living room.
But I didn’t vote for her husband.
In 2005, I was invited to dinner with someone whom I will simply call a very powerful liberal. “He’ll attempt to change your mind,” some friends said. “Watch out for truth serum!” they joked. In actuality, we spent most of the dinner talking about writing and raising children, and we have remained friends to this day, despite our political differences.
It’s dangerous, yet inevitable, to mix emotion and politics. Separating the person from the policies is important. I voted for McCain based on policies. I was emotional about his loss because of our shared history, almost like an old friend, with the military.
I am excited for the Obamas because of the history they have made and because I was so impressed with Mrs. Obama during our meeting. But based on what I heard during the campaign, I’m not excited about the policies an Obama administration might put in place.
Now, as for my children’s eating habits? Well, that’s another column — and I’ll get right on it as soon as I finish heating up these frozen waffles and canned SpaghettiOs.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Sarah Smiley’s new book, “I’m Just Saying… “ is available wherever books are sold. You can contact Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.