A Father, a Son … and Our Bridgeable Divide

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Above, Jerry Kavanagh in 2000 on his 75th birthday, with son Tom and grandson James.

My father passed away this week. The narrative arc of his 94 years on this earth seemingly has little to do with politics. He lived an “ordinary” life for someone of his generation, though it would hardly qualify as ordinary today. He grew up amid the Depression, not quite poor but far from prosperous; he shared a Baltimore rowhouse bedroom with three brothers until the oldest two enlisted – my father joining the Marine Corps, at age 18. He fought and was wounded in World War II, married, raised six children, attained a modest degree of middle-class comfort, retired and lived happily, or reasonably so, even as health issues posed repeated obstacles in his later years.

And yet (there’s often an “and yet” pivot in these RCP commentaries, isn’t there? Well, here comes another, this one to be unread by a man who visited the site regularly) . . . and yet, the slow and subtle transformation he underwent from hard-nosed, close-minded crank to someone more open-hearted and spiritually rooted has everything to do with politics. After all, if politics can be broadly defined as how we conduct our collective affairs, then Jerome Vincent Kavanagh provided an encouraging example that folks in Washington might emulate.

It’s not that Dad surrendered his beliefs or the principles that guided him. But he came to realize, and learned to accept, that other viewpoints make equal sense to those who hold them. Moreover – and this is the change that was the last to come but which astonishes me to this day – he understood that achieving some degree of harmony and finding one’s way forward despite our differences is one of life’s greatest rewards.

And there were some enormous differences between us for many years: vast ideological gulfs that seemed unfordable given the personalities involved – meaning his and mine. In his mid-thirties, my father was a John F. Kennedy supporter – mostly because of a shared Irish Catholic background and JFK’s youth and charm. But President Kennedy was the last Democrat Jerry Kavanagh ever voted for, and not long afterward, the conservative views that saturated my father’s value system slammed up against the questioning of conventional wisdom (and of authority) that arose during the late-1960s. In response, he hunkered down and became even more of the Marine disciplinarian who had long kept order in our busy household. Most of my siblings chose to toe the line, or steer clear of confrontations. But at some point I was no longer able to stifle my objections. And so, from my late teens to my mid-20s, we were like nitro and glycerin when the issues of the day – be they how long a teenage boy’s hair should be or which candidate offered the right prescriptions for our country – came to the fore, which seemed all too often.

These weren’t simply hot-tempered sparring matches. They were soul-deep declarations of who each of us was and what we stood for. And they were gut-wrenchingly emotional, for me because it was truly frightening to confront a father utterly convinced of being right — and so fierce in making that clear. For him, it was because he simply didn’t know what to make of these challenges from a son who didn’t know that his place was to acquiesce. I always slumped away afterward, feeling not just exhausted but hopeless. How could you reason with such a person? How did I end up with a father like this?

I suspect he felt much the same way.

Then, the first inkling of change appeared. I was still living at home at the time, in my late teens, when Dad handed me a card after one of our head-on collisions. The gesture itself was unprecedented, shocking even, and I reacted skeptically. The card quoted a popular saying of the era, and signaled his interest in a truce: “You do your thing, and I’ll do mine; I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you’re not in it to live up to mine.” I dismissed the message initially – an indication, I recognized in retrospect, of my own intractability, and of how alike we were in certain ways.

Once I moved out of my parents’ house and my father and I gained some distance from each other, the rate of conflicts diminished. But we could still lacerate each other in “discussions” that began, say, over Reagan’s economic policy but morphed into old recriminations. (“You always …” “But you never …”) Still, a softening was taking place, at least around the edges. Later, becoming a grandfather surely played a role on Dad’s end. Seeing him as a grandfather surely played a role on mine. A willingness to respect someone else’s point of view was growing in him. Less and less often would he counter my comment with “That may be true, but I still say …” and then reiterate the point that started the clash. It was a heartening development.

None of this is to say that Jerry Kavanagh ever stopped being Jerry Kavanagh. He could get worked up over any number of social and political developments, or personalities that simply rubbed him the wrong way. Harsh old judgments would bubble up. But more and more he was able to see the merits of opposing views, and discussions didn’t turn into arguments, or become personal. Life was better, he had discovered, if we don’t let differing viewpoints separate us from those we care about.

My own political views — and self-certainty — moderated with age too, and seeing my father mellow had a mellowing effect on me in turn. I thank God for this, as my own son and I have not repeated those battles, or inflicted similar wounds upon each other.

Dad remained an unshakable conservative until the day he died. And he was a proud Marine each and every day he lived. But he had also become a liberal in the deepest sense of that word – broad-minded (or at least broader-minded) in ways I once thought impossible. And he loved liberally too.

His life really does offer a lesson to those who govern our nation. I’ve never much liked our left-right distinctions, as it seems to me that our difficulties stem mostly from another divide: whether one is open-minded or close-minded. The latter can apply to anyone, regardless of their political stripes; without the former, any obstacle can trigger anger and defiance.

My father and I overcame some daunting obstacles in the course of our 65 years sharing this planet. Knowing how unlikely that once seemed, I look at today’s political divisiveness with a keener sense of what’s possible. Maybe it’s just the faint sparks of faith and hope, but if you can add in some love — as the theologians tell us — you’ve got all you need.

Tom Kavanagh is an editor for RealClearPolitics.

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