Long day’s journey into light

“Obviously,” concluded an angry email from a Republican partisan, “you are a Democrat.”

Whenever someone starts a missive with “obviously,” I know they’re about to assume something and, as a former editor once lectured me, “when you assume, you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”

Partisans love assumptions. It’s the only way they can justify their stereotypes.

I’ve tried to explain before that I’m an independent. I have, over the years, shifted from bright-eyed idealism to professional cynicism and, finally, to realism but I have never, ever, been a registered member of any political party.

Nor will I ever be.

My idealism surfaced at the age of 12 when I had the misfortune of being a student in Prince Edward County, Virginia, where a school board dominated the bigots and Klansmen closed the public school to avoid integration. From that day on, the only elementary and secondary education available in the county came from an all-white private school.

The atmosphere in Prince Edward County sickened me and I wrote an essay about my feelings for the local newspaper, The Farmville Herald. The essay brought a lot of attention, was published in other newspapers in the state, and also brought a beating from classmates who shared their parents’ hatred and bigotry.

It taught me a lesson about the inhumanity of society. It also taught me to ignore the stupidity of others and to fight for my beliefs. My parents also hated the bigotry of the county and we soon relocated to Floyd County, Virginia.

Journalism is the only career of choice for an idealist. In high school, I honed my idealism as a writer and photographer for the local newspaper and also sold stories and photos to The Roanoke Times. After high school, I went to work for The Times as a copyboy and became a staff writer within six months. Three years later, I moved on to The Alton Telegraph in Illinois and spent the next 12 years writing about corrupt politicians, innocent victims caught up in the wheels of a bureaucratic, and flawed, justice system and about the inequities of life.

My idealism, based on the belief that someone could make a difference, took a direct hit when I wrote a column about a young man held, without charge, for nearly a year in the Madison County jail. I championed his cause and the publicity forced the State’s Attorney to release the young man who, four days later, walked into a drug store and put four slugs into a harmless old man.

Few things can match the despair that comes from shattered idealism. I sought solace in a bottle. It didn’t help.

So I took a sabbatical from journalism, working for three GOP Congressmen as a press secretary, chief of staff and special committee assistant. One, Paul Findley, of Illinois, was a moderate but the other two — Manual Lujan of New Mexico and Dan Burton of Indiana — were about as far-right as you can get. My growing cynicism allowed me to work for Republicans without being one and I rationalized my actions by thinking it really didn’t matter. It worked for a while, bolstered by the heady rush of power as I moved from Capitol Hill and into the rough-and-tumble world of politics.

But it did matter. A series of events led me from the intoxicating world of politics, bolstered by a steady diet of scotch, and into a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. I sobered up and took a hard look at the world around me. What I saw sickened me and reminded me of that day many years ago when I looked at the haters and bigots of Prince Edward County and decided “this isn’t right and something has to be done.”

It’s been 10 years, nine months and one day since I walked into that first AA meeting and it took a while to rid my body of the toxins of alcohol and politics but as the corruption of both departed and my mind cleared, I realized that one could not fight the problems of the world by working for the demons that perpetuate those problems.

Some of my former associates on the Republican side of things now consider me a traitor because I don’t spout the party line. Too damn bad. I no longer check my brain at the door and I let no party or political dogma speak for me.

Yes, I worked for Republicans. I’m not proud of it but the experience did give me an insider’s look into the madness of power and the allure of corruption.

But I’m not a Republican. I’m also not a Democrat. Never have been either, never will be.

I consider both parties equally corrupt. Both put their political agendas above the needs of the country. Both confuse ideology with patriotism and neither has produced a worthy leader in decades.

I’m a recovering alcoholic, an ex-politico who served his time and a reformed cynic who is slowly, but surely, rediscovering the unique combination of anger and joy that comes from idealism tempered by reality.

So assume all you want. In this case, the only ass you create by doing so is yourself.