I was a registered Republican until I was in my 30s. And I came by it easily. I was greatly influenced by my mother’s parents. My maternal grandparents, Oliver and Edna Bell, were staunch Republicans. It is, they would say, the Party of Lincoln.
I am a registered Democrat now and I voted for Barack Obama for president, which is something I don’t know if either of my grandparents could have done. My mother certainly doubts it. My grandparents would remind me Obama is a liberal Democrat, and that can’t be good. But even if they saw Obama’s election as a political loss (and they surely would have), they would also say it is a triumph for America, a defining moment for a nation built on the labors of uneducated black people like them, two people who were only one generation removed from slavery.
With a last name like Bell, it wasn’t surprising that everyone called my grandfather Ding-Dong. Ding-Dong Bell. He was a large, dark-skinned man; big, boisterous, out-going and friendly. A natural politician. And had he been born white, he might one day have been elected governor of Indiana. But he was black and lacked much formal education. He made it to the Statehouse, however, serving as a personal aide to Gov. Harold Handley, who served one term from 1957 to 1961.
My grandfather also served for many years as a doorkeeper in the state Legislature, always with a carnation in his lapel. Though Grandpap died in 1978 — Robert Orr, Indiana governor from 1981 to 1989, was an honorary pallbearer — there are still old-timers in the Statehouse who fondly remember Ding-Dong Bell.
While my grandfather proudly spoke of meeting young Massachusetts Sen. John Kennedy in the Statehouse in the spring of 1960, I doubt either he or my grandmother ever voted for a Democrat. They distrusted Big Government and instilled that distrust in me.
But the older I got, the more I noticed the Republican Party didn’t look like me and didn’t appear to welcome me. It wasn’t the Big Tent it was proclaimed to be.
It still isn’t.
Compare the faces in the rallies for John McCain with the faces in the rallies for Barack Obama. McCain’s rallies were awash with white faces. You could see it election night when he spoke to supporters outside the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix.
There was a rainbow of colors in the faces of people at Obama rallies, and it was most evident on election night as President-elect Obama spoke to a crowd of 125,000 in Chicago’s Grant Park.
I e-mailed friends in Europe last night after the election was called for Obama — friends I have had since high school or college. And I reminded them, if such a reminder was ever necessary, I have always been proud to be an American. This is a wonderful country. And now more than ever, it is living up to its potential for greatness.
Now that the 2008 presidential election is over, I know somewhere in Heaven, undoubtedly sitting in the GOP caucus, my grandparents must be proud.