Several years ago, my parents, liberal Democrats, were having dinner with another couple, conservative Republicans, at a New York restaurant. They were a close foursome -- long-time neighbors and friends who played bridge and took trips together and looked in on each other if one of them was sick. What they didn't do together was utter a single word about politics because they'd tacitly agreed to disagree on the subject -- until that night at the restaurant.
They were a cocktail or two into the evening when the Republican husband made a derogatory remark about Hillary Clinton. My mother defended Hillary and then all hell broke loose, sending my mother to the ladies' room fuming. Eventually, there were apologies all around, but there was a new fragility to the relationship.
"I was still very fond of them," said my mother of her late friends, "but we were never quite as close after that explosion."
Similarly my husband and I, both Democrats, were friendly with a couple, both Republicans, when we lived in Florida. We'd make the occasional reference to the fact that we voted for specific candidates and supported this or that bill in Congress, but mostly we saved our impassioned views for more likeminded pals.
One day, the wife and I were on the phone and she said, out of the blue, "Why don't you like Republicans?"
I was taken aback. "I don't not like Republicans," I assured her. "I just don't agree with their stances on many issues."
"Let's not do this," I urged. "Whenever people try to have a civil conversation about politics, it inevitably gets personal."
"No it won't," she promised. "Just tell me why you don't agree with me on things."
I inhaled deeply and, against my better judgment, began a calm but comprehensive summary of why I believed what I believed. I was in mid-sentence when I heard her sniffling.
"Are you crying?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yes," she said, breaking into a full-on sob.
"I'll be right there."
I hung up and dashed over to her house where I explained that I had only spoken up because she'd persisted and that our friendship was too important to let politics derail it. Life went on, but I vowed never to get drawn into that potential minefield again.
My husband and I now live in California and among our closest friends is a couple that votes Republican. They watch Bill O'Reilly, listen to Rush Limbaugh and think Dennis Miller is wildly entertaining. It's all mystifying to my husband and me since we watch Rachel Maddow, listen to Ed Schultz and think Bill Maher is wildly entertaining. We make an unlikely foursome, politically, and yet there is so much that we do have in common.
She's a book-loving, movie-loving, laughter-loving author of novels like I am. He's a soft-spoken, stiff upper lip, let-others-have-the-spotlight type like my husband. We have fun when we get together and we're there for each other at the drop of a hat.
I have other friends who've asked, "How can you be friendly with people who voted for Romney and hates Obama?"
Here's how: I don't bring up politics and neither do they.
Did I call my friend to offer my condolences the morning after Romney lost the election? Yes.
Did she appreciate the gesture? Yes.
Did I gloat over Obama's victory? No, I said I knew she must be disappointed and left it at that.
Do I wish we could have watched the election returns with her and her husband over a fabulous meal and an equally fabulous bottle of wine, just the way we watch the Academy Awards together? Sure.
Did I have to restrain myself from picking up the phone to schmooze with her about how Harry Reid said John Boehner was running a dictatorship and Boehner F-bombed Reid in return? You bet.
But why go there when I know it could provoke bad feeling?
What my friend and I do agree on is that we both want what's best for our country; we just have different ideas about how to accomplish it. We also agree that being on opposite sides of the aisle doesn't tell the whole story of our relationship.
"Are we so defined by our politics that we have nothing else to offer each other?" she asked the other day when I told her I was writing this post. "You and I have respect for each other. That matters."
Respect is the key. If you have respect for your friends and their intelligence, you don't try to ram your opinions down their throats and they don't try to ram theirs down yours. Chances are neither side will budge, so what's the point?
Friendships are a life raft, especially as we get older. We need positive, supportive, caring people around us -- people who cheer if we get a book deal, who call to ask how we're feeling after a doctor's appointment and who won't lace into us about the debt ceiling. Life's too short for partisan bickering between friends. We can leave that to Reid and Boehner.