My father’s lesson that I wish had lived on

I was probably 13 or 14, sitting in the living room with my father watching something I wanted to watch. Suddenly, it was interrupted by the State of the Union, delivered that year by President Clinton.

Young pup that I was, I had long since figured out what my parents thought about politics. Growing up in that house, I had been used to hearing great things about the president. After all, my first memories were of Ronald Reagan, and then George Bush, both of whom my parents supported (though, as I recall, they did briefly flirt with Ross Perot in 1992).

But no longer. The contempt my father had for Bill Clinton was palpable. I’d cite some of the things he said to demonstrate just how much he didn’t like Clinton, but most of what he used to say isn’t fit for print.

So there I sat, irritated by the interruption and knowing that the person doing the interrupting was somebody strongly disliked in my house.

That was when I grumbled under my breath about this jerk on my television, and how no one should have to listen to him say anything. I was proud of myself for expressing my displeasure. I was looking forward to a slap on the back and a chuckle from my amused father.

Amused, he was not. Sharply, cooly he snapped back at me, “Son, this man is your president, and you are going to sit here and listen to what he has to say. This speech is what he will use to tell us what he wants to do in the next year, and it is important. Sit down.”

I was immediately deflated. My attempt to enjoy some political camaraderie with my father ended with an unexpected lecture about the importance of listening to people with whom you disagree. Little had I known that my father was what the British would call “the loyal opposition.”

I can’t really tell you why that particular moment stuck with me over the years, but the words “that man is your president” have always resonated in my head. Ever since, I have never been particularly pleased when I hear intense partisan reactions — on either side of the aisle — to leaders — particularly the phrase, “he isn’t my president.”

I suppose that’s why, despite my obviously rigid ideological belief system, I’ve never quite been comfortable with the tribalism of “us” vs. “them” in politics. When liberals, for instance, printed bumper stickers and tagged themselves with the 61 percent moniker after Paul LePage’s first election, attempting to delegitimize him and essentially claim he wasn’t their governor, I got annoyed.

Similarly, when conservatives began chasing the insane notion that the president is some kind of foreign born Manchurian Candidate, raised to power to destroy the country from within and leave it in ashes, I got similarly annoyed.

I’ve never particularly been all that interested in such activities. I prefer to simply stand in opposition to people and policies I disagree with, and then move on. A lesson I learned from my father, obviously. Be loud. Be passionate. Argue. Disagree. But always with an attitude of unity and togetherness.

I lost my father to lung cancer a year ago last Thursday. Robert Ronald Gagnon was a massive figure in not only my life, but the life of my entire family, and his loss is felt every day.

He was a product of a different era, raised with a different mindset. Born in 1935, the last child in a very large French-Catholic family in Livermore Falls, his early experiences were those of economic depression, poverty and World War.

Like most Franco-Americans, he grew up a Democrat in a Democrat home, revering figures like Franklin Roosevelt and later, John Kennedy. He would — like so many Americans — change his politics, as each party started to sort itself with more ideological coherence.

But those early experiences shaped a certain view of politics and political leaders. There were disagreements. There were fights (French families like calling them “debates”). But at the core, there was a belief in the unity, dignity and respect of America, and the nobility of public service.

Our political opponents were not our enemies. Ideas and debate were not scary things. Dissent wasn’t disloyalty. Politics wasn’t a war of attrition.

It is easy to romanticize the past, but at least in this one area, I wish the legacy of my father’s generation had lived on. His was a time, for all its faults, built on civility, vision, community, ambition and service.

To live in such a world today.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.