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Opinion
10:01 pm
Mon March 12, 2012

A Talk To Remind You Of What You Believe In

Originally published on Tue March 13, 2012 6:55 am

As the presidential primary season marches on around the country, the nasty political ads and robo calls are taking their toll. Many people are, to paraphrase former Vice President Al Gore, getting snippy about their political differences. If we're going to make it till Election Day, commentator Gwen Thompkins thinks we'd better all learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.

I had the most invigorating political discussion the other day with a man who didn't believe a word I said. I didn't believe anything he said, either, but that made the conversation all the more fun.

We had met years ago when I was a newspaper reporter and needed somebody to teach me — fast — about Louisiana politics. He was a political consultant — a Cambridge-educated man, no less — and when others recommended him to me, they consistently used the word "brilliant."

We had lunch recently at one of the best restaurants in New Orleans. And somewhere between my crabmeat beignets and his breast of roasted chicken, he announced that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a better president than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and that if Nelson Rockefeller had won the White House in 1960, Rockefeller would have made more inroads on civil rights than John Kennedy.

Now, the technical term, I believe, for these kinds of comparisons is "pish tosh." It's impossible to say who was a better chief executive when each president faced a different world and a wholly different political landscape. Nor is it fair to suppose what someone might have done as president. For example, if James Brown had been president, he might have gotten rid of "Hail to the Chief" and instead used his own song, "Papa Don't Take No Mess."

But between a couple of Americans within easy reach of hot buns, soft butter, iced tea and lemonade, all in politics is fair. My lunch companion and I agreed on some matters. For instance, the french fries here are excellent. But what made our lunch memorable was how deeply we disagreed, and how congenially. I remember we laughed a lot. And the best part was that each of us had a chance to finish a sentence.

By the time my lunch companion and I were done, the busboys were tidying the tables and all the other diners had gone. We vowed to come back soon, and I'm looking forward to it.

Let's hope there are similar conversations running at lunch tables nationwide. Talking politics with someone who agrees with everything you say is about as satisfying as kissing a mirror. At the very least, people who have different political ideas remind you of why you believe what you do.

So here are the ground rules: Make sure there's good food on the table. Think about what the other person has to say. And try like hell to get a word in edgewise.

Gwen Thompkins is a writer in New Orleans.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And as the presidential primary season marches on, the nasty political ads and robo-calls are taking their toll. Many people are, to paraphrase former Vice President Al Gore, getting snippy about their political differences. If you're going to make it to Election Day, commentator Gwen Thompkins thinks we'd better all learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: I had the most invigorating political discussion the other day with a man who didn't believe a word I said. I didn't believe anything he said either, but that made the conversation all the more fun.

We'd met years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter and needed somebody to teach me fast about Louisiana politics. He was a political consultant, a Cambridge-educated man, no less, and when others recommended him to me, they consistently used the word brilliant.

We had lunch the other day at one of the best restaurants in New Orleans. And somewhere between my crabmeat beignets and his breast of roasted chicken, he announced that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a better president than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and that if Nelson Rockefeller had won the White House in 1960, Rockefeller would have made more inroads on civil rights than John Kennedy.

Now, the technical term, I believe, for these kinds of comparisons is pish tosh. It's impossible to say who was a better chief executive when each president faced a different world and a wholly different political landscape. Nor is it fair to suppose what someone might have done as president.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPKINS: For example, if James Brown had been president, he might have gotten rid of "Hail to the Chief" and instead used his own song, "Papa Don't Take No Mess."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPA DON'T TAKE NOT MESS")

THOMPKINS: And yet between a couple of Americans within easy reach of hot buns, soft butter, iced tea and lemonade, all in politics is fair. My lunch companion and I did agree on some matters. For instance, the french fries here are excellent. But what made our lunch memorable was how deeply we disagreed, and how congenially. I remember we laughed a lot. And the best part was that each of us had a chance to finish a sentence.

By the time my lunch companion and I were done, the busboys were tidying the tables and all the other diners had gone. We vowed to come back soon, and I for one am looking forward to it.

Let's hope there are similar conversations running at lunch tables nationwide. Talking politics with someone who agrees with everything you say is about as satisfying as kissing a mirror. At the very least, people who have different political ideas remind you of why you believe what you do.

So here are the ground rules: Make sure there's good food on the table. Think about what the other person has to say. And try like hell to get a word in edgewise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Commentator Gwen Thompkins is a writer in New Orleans. You can comment on her essay at the npr.org opinion page. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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