We were talking about the presidential primaries and my Aunt Carol, still known to our family as Tante Gateau or Aunt Cake, told me the story about when she registered as a Socialist.
At 21, she went to the registrar's office in Turlock, California, with her foster father. When she said she wished to register as a Socialist, the registrar turned to the man and asked, "Is that OK with you?"
His intense discomfort was plain to see, but he finally answered gruffly, "She's of age."
Carol planned to vote for Norman Thomas, a pacifist and a Democratic Socialist, running for president in 1948. But her foster mother pleaded that everybody at the polling station would know who had voted for the Socialist, and did not want to suffer such embarrassment.
So Carol yielded and cast her vote for Henry Wallace, who had been vice president under Franklin Roosevelt and became the 1948 presidential candidate from the Progressive Party. Wallace campaigned for universal health care and an end to segregation. He lost badly.
My aunt said she vowed at the time that she would never compromise her vote again. Now, at 89, she is leaning toward Bernie over Hillary.
"He pretty much says what he thinks, where she pretty much says what will get her the most votes."
Aunt Carol naturally does not think highly of Donald Trump.
"I really don't like that guy," she told me. "His mind is a bunch of hot air. I don't think he's that smart. But yet he is kind of clever."
What struck me in looking over biographies of Wallace and Rockwell was that those were some pretty crazy times too.
When Wallace, who had dabbled in mysticism, was on the ticket with Roosevelt in 1940, the Republicans threatened to reveal his "bizarre" religious beliefs. The Democrats countered by threatening to reveal the extramarital affair that Wendell Willkie was thought to be having with a famous writer.
Two years later, in the darkest hours of the war, while Republican publisher Henry Luce was calling for the "American Century," Wallace answered with a famous speech calling for the "century of the common man."
When he ran for president in 1948, Wallace faced Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, Socialist Norman Thomas, Republican Thomas Dewey, Democrat Harry Truman and a phalanx of conservative columnists. Anti-New Deal writer H.L. Mencken accused Wallace of being controlled by the Communist Party, and another powerful columnist, Westbrook Pegler, called him a "messianic fumbler."
Wallace called the writers "stooges."
Trump calling Ted Cruz a liar seems pretty ordinary by comparison.
But Trump's militarism is a cause for worry with my aunt, who lived through WWII. "If you just want to bomb here and bomb there, that's the way to cause disaster," she said. "We will have a lot more kids sent out to die a military death. I don't think he's protecting us from a single thing."
Aunt Carol was clear that she thought Hillary Clinton had many strengths, and was a good candidate overall. But my aunt's political heart is with Bernie Sanders.
"It isn't like his personality is so outstanding my ideas are closer to his. And that's what I promised myself when I lost my vote, that in future I would vote for the one that is closest to my ideas that has a chance of getting in there."
Her ideas dovetailed with mine about the mystery of why so many Americans with low-paying jobs vote for Republicans who oppose virtually every social program, and want more tax breaks for the wealthy. I have long thought it's because they have a vague wish to become rich themselves, so they want to vote as though they were wealthy.
Lo and behold, I heard my very thoughts expressed a whole lot more crisply. "They identify with the right wingers because it gives them a kind of status in their own minds. They're associating with the upper upper. I don't think they know which side their bread is buttered on."
Having lived through the Great Depression, she has long seen a world divided into haves and have-nots. "I told myself when I did not have much money, I would never forget what my roots were and what it was like. And if I got wealthy. I would still remember what it was like to not have enough."
She noted ruefully that she is still far from wealthy. "If I had all kinds of money, I would get the best hearing aids!"
We agreed that the political scene is currently so wild and the attacks so frequent and extreme that it has become an extraordinary form of entertainment.
"It's not boring but there's a lot that's worrisome," said Tante Gateau. "I've got to stick around to see how this one turns out."
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