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POLITICS PUTS FRIENDSHIPS TO SEVERE TESTS

With Election Day looming, the question isn't whether the winner will be George W. Bush or John F. Kerry.

The question is: Will we survive the next week?

Ask the conservative Cheektowaga guy married to a liberal. Before a recent dinner out, he whispered a plea to friends and family.

"Please," he said, "don't bring up the election."

Ask the woman who rebuked a Buffalo News columnist with a brief e-mail: "Didn't your mother ever tell you not to talk about religion and politics?"

Better still, ask Carol. It's not her real name. She's in retail, and she doesn't want to alienate customers. Let's just say she's in her 30s, lives in Amherst and went to California a while ago with a close college friend.

In San Diego, protesters approached Carol. They asked if she wanted to help overthrow George Bush.

"I said, 'Oh, no!' " she recalls. "The protesters said, 'I'm sorry,' and moved on. They were nice. I was nice."

Her college friend wasn't so nice. As they were driving home, Carol mentioned the incident. Then she mused that it was funny that she and her brothers had all married Democrats. Her pal blew up.

"She said, 'I would never marry a Republican!' " says Carol, still incredulous.

Her friend launched into a bitter list of grievances against Republicans -- that they were out to convert everyone to Christianity, only cared about rich white men, opposed stem cell research, had no interest in curing diseases and couldn't tolerate other points of view. ("Interesting, coming from her," Carol can't help pointing out about her "party of tolerance" friend.)

"It was everything that I'm not!" she adds. "All the things she said about
Republicans were the opposite of the way I live my life and what I hope the world would see from me. This was supposed to be my best friend! She was actually screaming at me. I wanted to escape so badly. I wanted to pull my suitcase out of the car right there in the desert and go home. But my suitcase weighed 52 pounds."

The friend ended by proclaiming that as a Republican, Carol was a warmonger. "That's me. She's got me in a nutshell!" jokes Carol, a soft-spoken blonde.

The accusations were, of course, as absurd as other hysterical election-year myths flying around -- such as that Bush is a religious fanatic, or that al-Qaida is an exaggerated threat created by the administration to foster political goals.

Still, the friendship remains strained. "I called her last week," Carol says. "She hasn't called me back."

It's an ugly story, but this tight race has us all tense. Women, especially, are finding the going tough.

"Men are taught from childhood to be strong and to have their own mind," points out Julie Kusmierz, associate professor of human services at Hilbert College. "But it's traditionally the women's responsibility to keep peace in the home, to keep relationships happy and comfortable."

The strain is heightening prejudice, suggests Paul Falzone, the head of Together and the Right One, two longtime dating services.

"I've had people say, 'I don't want to date a Republican' or 'I don't want to date a Democrat; I don't care how great-looking they are,' " he reports." He regrets the trend. "We let people know if you cut off one political party, you're cutting off half the universe."

Steering clear of politics and religion in polite conversation is good policy. But avoiding these topics this week, with a holy war and a dead-heat presidential election both going on, will be like dodging potholes during a spontaneous Ohio Street drag race. Fasten your seat belts. The wheels have come off.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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