A Political Conversation with my Grandparents: From Vietnam to 2020

For this article, I interviewed my grandparents, Susan and Ken, on their political views and involvement, ranging from the war in Vietnam to Trump and the 2020 presidential candidates. As generational divides heavily impact political thought, I thought hearing my grandparents’ stories and thoughts on political issues would create an important conversation that bridges our different perspectives. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Katie: Tell me about what politics were like during your time growing up and becoming an adult.

Susan: My parents were Republican and therefore I thought that maybe that way the only party there was until Jack Kennedy was running. And the first time I ever sat in the living room watching the TV, I was glued to it, to the debate of him and Nixon. And I found it very interesting. I remember my father walking into the room and saying to me, “Susan, do you like this guy?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” And he said, “Why?” And I said “Well, I just do. I like his thoughts. I like his ideas.” My dad said, and this is a different time remember, “Well he’s Catholic.” And I looked at him and I said, “So? So what?” So that was my first introduction to politics.

Ken: I was born into a working family, so I was Democratic growing up. And when John Kennedy was running as a Catholic, he was, like, a god to us Catholics, because a Catholic had never been elected president. And for that reason, we were so excited about politics. But it was interesting because some of the things that were being said were that because he was a Catholic, John Kennedy would be taking orders from the Pope, and he would run this country as if the Pope controlled the United States. The other thing they said was that everyone was going to have to convert to Catholicism. These are things they were saying to try to prevent John Kennedy from being elected - by scaring people.

Susan: And then as we got older and went off to college, the politics, the environment, for all of us, was based around the war. The Vietnam War.

Ken: The war - every day, every single minute of every day, it was about the war. Because our classmates and our family members were dying every day.

Susan: I never will forget, two guys I knew, identical twins. Their father had passed. Their mother was at home. They were farm kids. Technically they didn’t have to go, but they both decided to go. One could have stayed so he could be the sole supporter of his mother. But they both decided to go and sure enough, one was killed. So, one came home and one didn’t. And it was just… (holding back tears) It was tragic.

A photo of my grandparents in college

Ken: We thought the world was coming to an end. I mean the riots and everything else.

I thought, I’m not going to waste my time paying for school if they were going to yank me out. So, I sent a letter to my draft board and said, “My number is 109. I want to sign up right now.” Because they told you that if you signed up, you could have a few choices as to what you could do in the military. I thought, “Well… I’m going anyways. I want to try to make a choice.” So, I got a letter back from my draft board, scared shitless. And the draft board said I had to go a particular day to take my physical in Columbus, remember?

Susan: Mhm.

Ken: And, everyone from Mount Vernon got on a bus, drove to Columbus, and they gave us a physical. And I had just got done with football that year at Ashland University, so I went through and I passed. We were all lined up, half-naked, and the guy said, “If anyone wants to talk to a doctor before you leave, there are three doctors here.”

So, Rick Walsh, who lived on my floor and was anti-Vietnam war, he actually got the manual for physicals. And one day before I went to get my physical he said, “I heard that you’re going to write to your draft board. Do you have any illnesses? Do you have anything?” And I said, “No, I am fine.” He said, “Have you had any surgeries?” I said, “Well I have a cyst that was operated on.” And he opened up his book and said, “You don’t have to be drafted!” And I didn’t believe him. So, I thought of Rick standing in line half-naked, and I walked to one of the doctors right before I was going to be put back on the bus and shipped somewhere. I told the doctor I had a cyst removed, and I showed him. And he said, (motioning crossing something out) “You’re done.” 6 of us got deferments. And I thought, “Are you kidding? I’m really not going to go to Vietnam?” And I told you (Susan) and you went crazy.

Katie: (To Susan) You were happy?

Susan: Mhm. (Holding back tears) Yeah, I mean they told you look to your left and look to your right and one of you is not coming home.

My granddad and me, circa 2001

Katie: So, did you do any protesting during the Vietnam War? What was that like?

Susan: Yes. At Ashland University, when the shooting at Kent State happened, the kids were forced to go home but a lot of them came to us and encouraged up to protest. We marched, and I got arrested twice. But we marched with the Kent State students and held a candlelight vigil.

Ken: When she got arrested I didn’t bail her out for about 12 hours to let her sit for a while and cool off.

Susan: Oh, stop it.

[Laughter]

Susan: But then they closed Ashland and sent us home.

Ken: And we didn’t have to take finals! Yes!

[Laughter]

Ken: We lived in fear. Everything was in fear and hatred. We actually thought this country was coming to an end.

Katie: This is a great time to transition to politics today. So, you mention hatred and fear, and a lot of people feel that now under the Trump administration. How do you guys process that?

Ken: It’s different. Back then there was something to hate and that was the Vietnam war. Something that we believed in. Now, it’s so personal. Now it’s a hatred of people. Back then it was a hatred of what was happening.

Susan: It’s dividing the country, and Trump is an expert at it. This is the first time that I could ever remember a president of the United States being like this. That’s why it’s frightening. Our leader can talk about anyone he wants to talk about and… Oh it’s just horrific.

Image result for donald trump onstage Katie: So, there’s a lot of fighting going on, even within the Democratic party. So, as Democrats, I wanted to ask what you think about the division between the leftists and the centrists within the party.

Susan: Honestly, and it’s probably due to our age, but I’m a centrist. But it’s not that I don’t agree with some of the things that progressives stand for - I do. But sometimes there is a battle raged without the knowledge of what is going to happen in the end. Sometimes they say they want all these things, just like Elizabeth Warren, but she has yet to say how exactly she will pay for it.

Katie: Actually, she does have an idea on how to pay for things. I went to a town hall of hers in Los Angeles and she talked a lot about her Ultra-Millionaire tax. It would be 2 cents for, I think, every dollar you make over a certain threshold. And that would pay for affordable daycare, helping people with student debt, etc.

Ken: And I think that is an excellent idea. And the reason being is that there is such a disparity between the haves and have-nots; the ability to make income and the struggle to survive every day. The income disparity is unbelievable, and the amount of money that is limited to so few rich individuals is absolutely unbelievable.

Susan: To me the thing we have to remember is all of these candidates have all these ideas to change things, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s ever going to happen.

Katie: But wouldn’t you rather have someone on the further left who has all these plans rather than someone like Joe Biden who is in the center but doesn’t really have any plans? What makes you think a centrist Democrat is going to achieve more than a leftist Democrat who has progressive ideas and actually fundamentally wants to change things?

Susan: To be honest with you, I just want someone to beat Trump. And I happen to believe Joe Biden is the person to do it. It’s not that I dislike any of the candidates, except for Bernie Sanders. I just don’t think any of the other candidates can beat Trump. Bernie and Elizabeth are just going to be pigeonholed as Socialist. That’s going to get them beat.

Ken: I too am a centrist, but a little bit more leaning towards the left, not much. But my reasoning is that if we go too far left then there will be a backlash, and we will lose ground. So, what I think is that a centrist and someone who can attract some Republican support can actually make incremental changes and be much more successful than trying to jump to a liberal agenda.

Susan: That’s exactly right. It’s not that the ideas aren’t good, it’s just that the main focus has to be to beat Trump. And it takes time to get there.

Democratic presidential hopeful former Vice President Joe Biden gestures toward Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of 2020 presidential campaign season.

Katie: This is the critique of that argument of having a centrist in office: People say you need to take baby steps, you need to take your time to get to the policies you eventually want to get to. The problem is that with a centrist or someone like Joe Biden is that they don’t want to piss off the left or the right, so he’s going to stay in the middle of every argument and not really push for anything that is going to actually fix our country.

Ken: That’s not good either. We need someone pushing but not someone jumping.

Katie: So, I’m wondering, what’s your take on Joe Biden’s past? What is your opinion on the handling of Anita Hill, the ’94 crime bill, and anti-bussing policies? Because he doesn’t seem to acknowledge his mistakes but instead brushes them off and defends them.

Susan: I think he has made mistakes.

Ken: I think Joe Biden has grown. My concern with Joe Biden is that he’s old and for that reason, he is not quick to understand the perception of him. I have real concerns about Joe Biden and his capabilities at his age. But I think that he is probably the best bet.

Katie: So, you said specifically that you think he has grown and learned from his mistakes, but he has constantly been defending them in debates and on the campaign trail. Do you think that shows growth? Because when I look at it, I don’t see that.

Ken: I think it shows growth but also a personality deficiency, where he is not aware of how people are perceiving him.

Susan: Well any good commentator will tell you when you’re running for president not to apologize. I just hope tonight in the debate they don’t go after each other, but go after Trump. The democratic party appears to be weak because they won’t just dig into Trump.

Ken: Here’s a quote that you should put in this article. It says that I am not a member of any political party. I am not a member of any organized political party. I’m a democrat. And that’s exactly what it is.

 

Image Credits: Katie Mazzolini, Katie Mazzolini, 3, 4