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Staunch Republican uncles may not recognize party

I come from a Republican family.

Not my parents, heaven knows. They were largely apolitical throughout my youth.

In the case of my father, who was in the menswear business, there were two standing jokes: 1) That Harry Truman was occupational kin because he'd once done time in a haberdashery selling suits and ties to fellow citizens, and 2) that my father was always on the side of winners, no matter who they were. He "liked Ike" for the same reason that most of America loved Eisenhower in the 1950s – his crucial wartime leadership, his heroic middle-of-the-middle image.

One of my father's prized possessions was a framed photograph someone took of my father standing in notable proximity to the Republican New York State Gov. Thomas E. Dewey (who, said Alice Roosevelt Longworth memorably, looked like the man on top of the wedding cake).

I'm not completely sure, but when I wore a Kennedy/Johnson button on my lapel to school in 1960, I may have been the first in my immediate family to defile my clothing with the name of a Democrat. And even then, the very idea of Jack Kennedy was so foreign to the small private school I attended that there were only two other guys (out of a class of 48) who wore Kennedy buttons. And we usually wore them inside our lapels, flashing them to each other in covert solidarity, as if we were cult members – or worse.

The real Republicans were my two uncles – both lawyers and both civil servants (in one case, lifelong).

In the case of my uncle in the city Law Department, he was reasonably active in the party. He knew the county and state big shots. He was pleased – more or less – when Lockport's Bill Miller was selected as Barry Goldwater's running mate to drive Lyndon Johnson crazy. Certainly that pleased him more than conservative Goldwater at the top of the ticket.

"Rockefeller Republican" was, I suppose, the name that might define the credos of both my uncles – moderate-to-liberal Republicans in complete contra-distinction to Goldwater, who famously said "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

I've been thinking a lot about my uncles since the Republican Party was, by many lights, kidnapped by extremists some time ago. I can't tell you how much I've longed to hear what they'd have said about the ways Republicans have been widely perceived throughout our culture since the Clinton impeachment.

They were '40s and '50s moderates through and through, with formative memories of the Depression and, therefore, anomalously fond feelings for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the all-popular economic savior and warrior against the Axis powers.

If either one of them had been in that country club when Mitt Romney announced his unconcern for the voters of the 47 percent of America he'd written off, they wouldn't have been there because they were country club members. They'd have been there by political invitation, as visitors. In other words, as total strangers to the lifestyle who were condescendingly allowed through the door for utilitarian purposes – getting a temporary upgrade of the sort allowed servant classes when they might prove to be useful.

I've tried to imagine their reaction. All I can come up with is, at best, inchoate sorrow.

They were, as I said, men of the very middle of the middle in America. It was where Republicans seemed to be back then.

When Goldwater took the party far right of Eisenhower – the ex-military hero who once flirted with becoming a Democrat and whose immortal farewell warning about America's growing "military-industrial complex" remains instructive – my most active political uncle tried to pretend Goldwater was just politics as usual, but his heart wasn't in it. For a Rockefeller Republican with a temperamental fondness for Eisenhower and unavoidable admiration for Roosevelt, Goldwater was, at best, a test.

And even then, Goldwater himself was nothing if not a genial test. He was renowned for being a collegial member of the Senate – an unashamed friend and even mentor to a young Ted Kennedy.

Heaven only knows what my uncles would have felt about the extremist adamance and vitriol that has become everyday on both sides of the aisle since the unsuccessful nomination of Robert Bork for Supreme Court in 1987. (It was, by many lights, the watershed event in our current polarization, with its attendant liberation of vindictive and bloodthirsty rhetoric.)

My most active uncle was a political man. He could certainly say the political thing – especially to a callow, pestering young nephew not quite ready for political intricacies. But he was a truthful man, too. I think there would have been a limit to his party loyalty.

It hasn't escaped notice that in the current era of BS flood tides from talk radio, cable TV and the Internet that there are Republicans and genuine conservatives (by temperament, not dogma) – people like Peggy Noonan, David Brooks and William Kristol – in mourning for the Republican Party of presidential candidates they remember.

I'm not sure I can explain why, but I've begun to feel genuinely sympathetic toward the Republican Party I grew up with – an authentic conservatism of the middle where even fat cats talking to other fat cats would have definitely thought twice before implicitly pledging allegiance to Fat Cat America in public (which, let's all admit, is what a country club Romney fundraiser is, even if the fellow was putatively among political "friends").

I find myself having some pity for Republican moderates in 2012, whoever and wherever they might be in a time that seems to assume their stature to be more mythic than real.

If you're a thoughtful, middle-class adult Republican of even temperament and a post-New Deal interest in universal prosperity, you must be wondering why in heaven's name the other guys have a presidential candidate whose temperament and approach seem like your own and your own guy is publicly confessing his reluctance to go on "The View."

Extremism in the defense of wealth is no virtue. And moderation in the pursuit of sensible governance is no sin.