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Bachmann's Epiphany and My Own 'Conversion'

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Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has recently come under a lot of attention, even ridicule, for telling an audience of Michigan Republicans how she "shed her youthful Democratic roots and became a Republican."

Her story:

Until I was reading this snotty novel called Burr, by Gore Vidal, and read how he mocked our Founding Fathers. And as a reasonable, decent, fair-minded person who happened to be a Democrat, I thought, 'You know what? What he's writing about, this mocking of people that I revere, and the country that I love, and that I would lay my life down to defend -- just like every one of you in this room would, and as many of you in this room have when you wore the uniform of this great country -- I knew that that was not representative of my country. And at that point I put the book down and I laughed. I was riding a train. I looked out the window and I said, 'You know what? I think I must be a Republican. I don't think I'm a Democrat.'

While I will not mock her political conversion, I do believe that the reasons given are somewhat contrived and her conversion just a bit too sudden, too fast.

I will not mock her change of mind because in today's political climate, all too often changing one's mind, whether for better or for worse, can be considered a cardinal sin. Witness the withering attacks John Kerry endured during the 2004 presidential elections campaign when he tried to explain his votes on a funding measure for the Iraq war. The term "flip-flopping" acquired an entirely new meaning. It became a pejorative and an effective one.

John Kerry's alleged "flip-flopping," along with the smear campaign on his Vietnam War record -- the so-called "swift boating" -- probably cost him the presidency.

I will not mock Bachmann's conversion because I, too, shed my deep Republican roots and became a Democrat many years ago. However, my conversion took many years and a lot more soul searching and agonizing than just reading a "snotty novel."

How deep were my Republican roots? Perhaps, recounting an experience of over 40 years ago will explain.

Every Christmas, as we had done for the previous six or seven years, my sisters and I, along with our families, gathered in laid-back Lakeland, Florida, to celebrate the holidays with our parents.

That particular Christmas morning in 1968 was no different. We had just finished breakfast and were sitting around a weather-beaten redwood picnic table under a large, beautiful grapefruit tree. The conversation was lively and in three languages -- Dutch, Spanish and English -- reflecting our family's diverse roots and our relatively recent arrivals in the United States. Although we all spoke English relatively well, we never dwelled upon nor questioned this Babel phenomenon. However, on this day there would be some serious questioning -- not of our multi-lingual tradition, but of our beliefs, loyalties and even our patriotism.

As I was the only member of the military and the only Republican in our immediate family, our conversation eventually turned to the major topic in those days, the war in Vietnam. As a young Air Force captain, I ardently -- almost fanatically -- supported the war and those who were running the war. I blindly believed in the "Domino Theory." I was convinced that by fighting in that far-away country we were defending freedom and democracy over there and our own national security over here. I revered President Nixon and admired Henry Kissinger. Ronald Reagan would later become my idol, Ollie North my hero.

I do not remember exactly how the conversation took the turn it did. Perhaps it was my sisters defending those longhaired, unpatriotic anti-war protesters. Perhaps it was my younger sister's whining about the tens of thousands of casualties in Vietnam and about atrocities allegedly committed by our troops -- revelations about the Mylai massacre were just beginning to emerge. I painfully recall words such as "traitor" and "unpatriotic," that I hurled across the table at my sisters and comments such as "If you hate this country so much, why don't you go back to Holland or to Ecuador." I do not remember all the vitriol, but I do vividly remember the tears in my sisters' and mother's eyes. Yes, I was a gung-ho Republican back in 1968.

I continued to be a flag-waving war supporter for several more months after that December morning, despite the horrendous human toll the war was taking on both sides. Eventually the horrors of that war and the words I had read by the Roman historian Tacitus, "They made a wasteland and called it peace," became too poignant for even me to ignore.

Although disillusioned with the war, I continued to be a halfhearted Republican for several more years, while still in the military and while working for a defense contractor. By the time I retired from my second career, however, I had fully flip-flopped.

My disillusionment with the Vietnam War was one reason for my conversion. I also gradually realized that "moral principles," "family and traditional values," and other "values" that my previous party claimed to have exclusive rights on, were quite uniformly shared by all Americans, regardless of political affiliation -- or were violated by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Perhaps it was because I saw that Democrats are just as God-fearing as Republicans are.

Perhaps it was because I came to the conclusion that "compassion," "tolerance," and "inclusion" are a way of life with Democrats, not just hollow quadrennial campaign slogans.

There were other reasons for my "flip-flopping." But the most personal and compelling reason was that so many from my previous party allege that my son is immoral, a biological error, or worse. A person who does not deserve all the rights and privileges other Americans enjoy. You see, my son -- the finest young man in the world -- happens to be gay.

Finally, it could also have something to do with the tears in my sisters' and mother's eyes about 40 years ago.

I have flip-flopped in my politics, but I find that I have not changed my deeply held beliefs and principles. I do not wear my religion on my sleeve, but I still believe in God. I do not wear an American-flag lapel pin, but I still love my country. And, although I do not blazon my car with bumper stickers, I do support our troops in combat and grieve their every casualty.

No, as a political flip-flopper myself, I will not criticize Bachmann's conversion. I just find her stated reasons flimsy, even fabricated. As a career military who served my country for 20 years, I would also, as Bachmann would, lay my life to defend it. I just don't think we need to bring patriotism into a discussion of our political affiliations.

Whether Democrats-turned-Republicans or Republicans-turned-Democrats, we are all patriotic, we are all Americans, real Americans.