Strange bedfellows

One loves Bush, the other gags at the very sight of him -- and yet they sleep together every night! Inside the peculiar world of mixed-politics couples.


Rebecca Traister
January 23, 2004 11:10PM (UTC)

Mary Lee Gowland, a 54-year-old poetry teacher, moved to Coarsegold, Calif., in 1992, an election year. "I had been raised by Democrats and was a lifelong liberal. It was very important to me to be with a man who had the same political beliefs," said Gowland. "I had never gone out or even socialized with Republicans because I had been raised to believe they were nasty rich people." Enter John Busch, a filtration distributor from Texas, who in 1992 was also new to California.

"We didn't discuss politics at the very beginning," says Gowland. "And I really liked him, was attracted to him physically, but on the second or third date he showed up in a suit and it totally freaked me out. He told me he was a Republican, and the first thing I said was 'Don't tell my parents.' I was 40 years old." Though it was "kind of scary at first," and on one memorable day she "practically jumped out of the car when he said Hillary Clinton was a communist," Gowland decided to proceed with the relationship. She and Busch have been married for 12 years.

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How do Gowland and Busch -- and other strange bedfellows -- sleep at night? Politics is one of those things that tends to be catching -- within families and tribes of friends. Many of us don't even socialize with people whose views differ radically from our own, and become positively itchy at the thought of falling for someone who doesn't share our core beliefs: about healthcare, abortion, the war, the president, or, you know, the nature and responsibility of government in an evolving world. Between an extraordinarily divisive war with mounting casualties, and the first presidential election since both the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the chad-littered Florida debacle of 2000, this may be the most polarizing political moment in decades. That two people who stand on opposing sides of the many political canyons facing the country could successfully couple may be beyond the ken of many of us. And yet, the country -- red and blue -- is dotted with pairs who cheerfully cancel each other out at the polls, who spend news hours and election years raging, bickering, throwing their hands up in frustration, and perhaps even getting off on the fact that never shall their ideologies meet.

"God, it keeps it interesting," said Betty Kennedy, a 47-year-old Republican social worker in Dade City, Fla., who two years ago married retired St. Petersburg Times columnist and vocal liberal Jan Glidewell. "Couples that sit around nodding at each other all the time probably lead boring lives," added her husband.

Indeed, many politically opposed couples say that love beyond party lines can be electrifying in that proton-electron, yin-yang, raw attraction sort of way. Think Mulder and Scully, Beatrice and Benedick, Ralph and Alice, Hepburn and Tracy, Nick and Nora: sparring partners who generate heat.

A heat so intense it can occasionally obscure the fact that you just might be sleeping with the enemy.

"I didn't realize he was a Republican until after we were married!" Carole Borstein, a 57-year-old Manhattan attorney, said of Ray Weisner, her husband of 15 years. "I had been raised by Democrats; to me my whole world was Democratic," she continued. "And he was such a lovely guy it never occurred to me that he would be a Republican."

The cruel truth hit her hard during their first year of marriage, at tax time. "I was brought up that it was a privilege to be taxed," said Borstein, who was born in Brooklyn. Borstein actually lost words for a few moments when she tried to recall her surprise at discovering that her mate felt very differently. "I was nonplussed, I was shocked, I can't even think of a word that fits what I was. I was overwhelmed, because my husband is such a nice guy," she reiterated. "I don't think I'd ever dated a Republican, much less married one!"

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Over the years, said Borstein, her dismay at her accidental marital circumstance eased. "I used to think it was very important that he think exactly like I thought, and we would really go at it. But we don't really anymore." She said they try not to talk about voting or the IRS. "I prohibit the discussion of taxes in my house because it makes me absolutely nuts," she says.

"I don't like taxes," said Weisner succinctly, joining his wife on the telephone.

"No, he just doesn't like the way they're applied," amended Borstein.

"The marriage penalty changes my blood pressure," he said.

Borstein jumped in: "Every year this comes as a shock to him! We eat, we drink, we have a nice house, and you know what? We pay a little extra 'cause we're married!"

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When asked whether the years of living with a Democrat have softened his Republicanism at all, Weisner hesitated.

Borstein told her husband, "The answer is yes, Ray."

"I would say no," said a laconic Weisner. "It makes me aware of other points of view. And I'm willing to listen. But I can't think of a position I've shifted on because of Carole's position."

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"Carole, can you think of a position you've changed your mind about?"

"I guess I can think of some things you argue that I may think have a tinge of validity," said Borstein.

"Oh, I didn't say yours had any validity," said Weisner.

Social worker Andrea Maloney Schara counsels Washington couples, and says that marital political strife is a common complaint in that company town. "I deal with this all the time," she said. "When people who you love say things that upset you or that you don't agree with, you think, 'I don't like you!' And sometimes more than that. 'Not only do I not like you, I'm done! I hate you!'" said Schara. "It's all about fear -- fear that they're going to take you over, control you to be like them, that you're going to end up merging with them. That's when we fight."

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Not that all politically divergent couples argue. "I don't fight over anything with anybody," said Hiram Hardy, a 69-year-old retired truck driver in Davenport, Iowa. He was speaking by phone the day after the Iowa caucuses, where he had been a caucus leader. "My wife was over with Gephardt and I was with Kerry. I've always been for Kerry, so we discussed that. But no, we don't fight about it."

Hiram quickly clarified that his wife's presence in the Gephardt camp doesn't mean that she'll be voting Democratic come November. Julianne, 57 and a real estate agent, is a staunch Republican, and has been throughout their 37-year marriage. "I guess they [the Republicans] want the weaker people to win the nomination so that they'll go up against the Republicans," said Hiram, with what sounded like a shrug.

"I guess I have always been for working-class people," said Hiram. "[Julianne] has always been a Republican because of this abortion issue. Anyone who indicates that a woman should have rights to an abortion -- she really wipes them out, doesn't want anything to do with them. But then that's the Republicans -- they seem to think that they are more moral than everybody else."

These casual "my-wife-is-Attila-the-Hun" comments may be a bit unsettling for those whose mates drop the same butterfly ballots in the voting machines, but the politically mismatched seem unfazed by them. In Hiram's case, "everybody else" apparently includes him. "I'll tell you the truth," he said, "I don't think it's right to take the life of a child, but there are a lot of circumstances that I have never been in that I don't fully understand. I don't think it's right to bring a child into this world and abandon it and starve it, and then there's rape and so forth. And I think, OK, maybe that would fall into the category where abortion [is alright]. But no, under no circumstances would my wife allow you to do that. But we don't have fights over it, just total disagreement."

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Thin GOP pundit Ann Coulter isn't confident that heart-stopping romance can flourish among political opposites. Political difference in love is "not a turn-on," she said in an e-mail. "It's an obstacle to be overcome and then eliminated through the process of conversion." On whether she herself had ever been romantically involved with a Democrat, Coulter said, "Dated someone who's a Democrat? Are we talking about a man?" later clarifying that this response was a joke about how "Democrats aren't men." How about a Libertarian or Green Party member? "I really can't stand the smell of pot." Would political difference keep her from falling for someone? "If the views are strongly held, it probably would. But I don't like riding in hybrid cars anyway."

Kennedy the Republican and Glidewell the Democrat keep Republican speechwriter Mary Matalin and Democratic baldy James Carville in good company as examples that fly in the face of gender assumptions backed up both by statistics and stereotyping. Those assumptions are that women -- compassionate softies with keen nurturing instincts -- skew left while alpha males -- providers who have good heads for math and a well-preserved G.I. Joe collection -- will be more likely to be hawkish, testosterone-fueled Republicans. Coulter has an explanation for the supposed prevalence of lefty lasses and Republican lads: "Notwithstanding their progressive pretensions," she says, "all women want a man."

For some, an ideological fault line reveals itself deep into a marriage. This is the case with Alice and Frank Remer, who live in Corona Del Mar, Calif., and have been married for 55 years. "We have had to call a truce over this [Iraq] war," said Alice, a retired school librarian. "Because there's very little we fight about. But when Bush comes on and Frank is saying 'Oh, he's pretty good,' I get very angry."

The Remers met at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn in 1944. They supported McGovern in 1972, and Frank voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. "He's always been a good Democrat," said Alice, 74. "It's really this one issue." Alice said that she blames the hawkish work of former leftist poster child Christopher Hitchens for its influence over her husband. "Not that Frank can't think for himself, but having people of that caliber writing this way, it gives him some ammunition," said Alice with a small sigh.

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Frank, a 74-year-old semi-retired attorney and Army veteran who serves as president of Corona Del Mar's Baroque Music Festival, later agreed that he has had a change of heart. "About the war and to some extent President Bush, I don't identify myself with the popular liberal Democratic approach. Although I feel as though that approach left me, rather than me leaving it," he clarified. And while Frank said that when he picks up Vanity Fair and reads the work of Hitchens, "he's saying exactly what I'm thinking," he denies his wife's suggestion that he is in the Hitchens tractor-beam. "Oh, no, no ... he's not leading me," said Frank.

As for the impact his shifting views have had on his marriage, Frank said, "I'm sure this irritates her, and I'm not happy about that. I try to downplay my reaction when we watch the news together, but sometimes some of this pops out -- to her great frustration." Frank pointed out, a little ruefully, that "all of her friends and acquaintances are on her side, so she has that support system."

"I think at the end of the day, if we ever get into it -- I think she respects my viewpoint," said Frank. "She thinks I'm crazy, but she respects my views."

In some cases, as Coulter pointed out, political re-evaluation is always a possibility. After all, Hillary Clinton, the junior Democratic senator from New York, began her adult life as president of Wellesley's Young Republicans. Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz, was a Republican; Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley Clark has voted Republican.

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"My sister has always dated Republicans and is very good at converting them ... You find one and you fix him!" said Gretchen, a 29-year old Democrat and New York librarian who didn't want her last name published. Gretchen herself hasn't managed to perform any such alchemy on her own husband, a 29-year-old journalism student named Mark. But politically transformative capabilities run in her bloodstream. Gretchen was raised in Washington by staunch Democrats; her father was a Clinton appointee. Mark, whom she met in college, is a conservative Republican. Gretchen and Mark don't have children yet, but Gretchen said she expects that her offspring will be raised in an environment full of political conversation and debate.

"Absolutely I expect to have a political family. I'm sure we'll talk and agree and disagree and they [the children] will learn from both of us," she said, adding that sometimes familial conflicts can sharpen debate. "I think the differences help you cement your own argument," said Gretchen, while her husband admits, "there's an advantage in knowing your enemy."

There's also the possibility that your "enemy" might teach you a thing or two. Mary Lee Gowland, the poetry teacher from California who was initially freaked by her suit-wearing Republican husband John, said that talking to him about his political views made her question some of her own. Despite her upbringing and four decades committed to the left, she's become a Libertarian -- "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" -- and even ran for state senator on the ticket. (She lost.)

"When I met John, I found out by talking to him that he was raised to think that Democrats were the evil people, because they take all your money and give it to other people," said Gowland. "It was very eye-opening."

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The two still disagree on some issues, like gay marriage -- she's for it, he's against it -- but, she said, "He yells what he thinks and I yell what I think and we're done." They agree that in many ways, their relationship is enhanced by their occasional squabbles -- remember Beatrice and Benedick? "The sex is great," said Gowland, who later expanded on this by saying "living with somebody who has different political beliefs is actually more enjoyable, I think. I never know when we're going to agree and when we're going disagree, so it's much more exciting to have someone who's going to surprise you."

Gowland's husband agreed. "It's sort of like I sought out somebody different because I already know me. I already have a set of views. Why would I want to go out and marry myself?"

This year, the couple found common ground when they both supported former Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger for California governor. Their Christmas card consisted of a photo of them with a Schwarzenegger cutout, and a politically themed, cleverly rhymed poem that read in part, "In March the U.S. invaded Iraq/May was my anaphylactic attack ... At fifty-four some people might fold/but we're determined to be brave and bold./Our Governator has given us courage/To go out and kick ass and not get discouraged."

See how exhilarating mixed ideologies can be? Perhaps someone should recommend it to the 17-year-old Open Diary contributor Thin Mint, who describes herself as "the kind of right-Winger who watched FOX New's [sic] 'Bombs to Music' and wanted to purchase a taped copy." Thin Mint wants to date among her tribe. "Out of the 4 people who hit on me last week I can very safely say that none are republicans. None get the same warm fuzzies when they see a B-2 bomber tare [sic] through the air. None get the Limbaugh Letter, and none really know who Ann Coulter is ... Anyway ... Met a nice Republican boy, went to Starbuck's (my date place, no pressure) and it was absolutely horrible. Worst date ever. Ever. You know why? We talked foreign policy. We spent 45 minutes discussing tax cuts in my head I kept repeating the mantra 'IhatehimIhatehimIhatehim.' He was horrible, and by the end of the experience I was a little naucice [sic]." Tax cuts are gonna do that to you sometimes, honey.

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Which brings us back to Florida couple Jan Glidewell and Betty Kennedy. The 59-year-old retired liberal journalist described himself as "an aging Vietnam vet flower child," and his 47-year-old bride of two years as "someone who briefly belonged to a Rotary club," and "the only poor Republican Kennedy in the United States." Kennedy actually started life as a Boston Catholic lefty, but switched affiliations when she started working for Republican state Senate campaigns in Florida.

"It gives us something to talk about besides what's on television," said Glidewell, for whom this is a fifth marriage. No kidding. Glidewell, who voted for Nader -- in Florida -- had to have one of his earlier unions annulled before he could marry Kennedy in a Catholic church. She wore a Hindu sari that they'd picked up at a California ashram, and in lieu of gifts they asked guests to make donations to a charity she founded that brings terminally ill children from Northern Ireland to Florida.

These are colorful people, open about their differences. "I once took her to a folk concert," said Glidewell, "and she said, 'God, you know so many nice people.' And I said, 'Well, you're a Republican, no wonder you've never been exposed to any of these people."

"In the beginning, he didn't want me to tell people that I ran certain people's campaigns," said Kennedy, especially John Grant, a state senator whom she described as "up there with the Bush people." But, she added, his embarrassment about her politics was a tradeoff. "I didn't want him to tell people that he was going to take me to a nudist camp."


Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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