Obama: Can Old Friendships Survive His Divisive Presidency?

Dear Belladonna Rogers,

I’m in a bind. "Jane" and I go back 55 years -- to when we were ten years old at a girls school. After that, we attended college together. Her husband is now very sick and I want to help.

She’s told me that the greatest support would be for me to stay with them for a few days. I’m able to go, but there’s a problem: I’m a conservative who’s loathed Barack Obama from my first awareness of him. Jane is a strident, fanatical liberal who all but worships him. Her idolatry has tried my patience, but I've maintained the friendship through emails and phone calls. We live 2,700 miles apart.

Jane talks of the president incessantly, referring to him at every possible conversational turn. She calls Republicans “the clowns.” She’s lived in academia her entire adult life and has contempt for those who don’t share her politics.

Throughout our decades of friendship, I never disclosed my political views to her. In the past, it never came up. But since 2008, I've deliberately remained silent because I have no doubt she’d drop me as a friend, consider me a jerk and disclose to our classmates from school -- liberals all -- what they would consider the error of my ways. The Democratic Party has become their religion. Being with Jane, especially, is like being with a compulsive proselytizer.

I try to live by the Golden Rule and would certainly want my friends to rally around me if my husband were in the condition hers is in. I’d like to think we could discuss nonpolitical topics.  But with Jane, there’s only one: The One.

I feel it’s my duty to visit, but I have high blood pressure and being around her is stressful. Although not best friends, we are friends.

She lives in one of the country's most left-wing university communities where the overwhelming majority agree with her. She appears to know no one whose politics differ from hers, and has made it crystal clear she has no desire to consort with conservatives. What should I do?

Troubled in Tuscon

Dear Troubled,

Jane is clearly a poster child for Obama-Induced Fanaticism Syndrome while you have Obama-Induced Irritation Syndrome (OIIS.) This is a perfect illustration of the phrase “irreconcilable differences.”

Your dilemma shows the pressure liberals exert on conservatives to see things their way or take to the highway.

Let’s be clear on the deal: you’re contemplating offering her the gift of your time and the pleasure of your company. To do what you regard as the right thing, you'll incur the cost of a plane ticket and then subject yourself to Jane’s aggressive contempt for your views while also trying to keep your blood pressure in check.

Jane shows no discernible interest in discovering the person you've become and cares more about taking advantage of your kindness than treasuring you for who you really are. You've remained silent, but she doesn't sound remotely curious about drawing you out. She's only made clear that she wants no truck with conservatives. How, I wonder, is her stance different from other forms of unabashed prejudice?

In earlier times, friendships were rarely threatened by political differences. Churchill, Eisenhower, and Reagan all enjoyed friendships with members of the party not their own. One cannot deny it: things are different now.

While Obama appears to be the source of your differences with Jane, in fact he's but a visible (and, alas, audible) symbol of your differing views of the world -- a divergence he's worked hard to intensify in his efforts to polarize the country as much as possible.

You and Jane have opposing perspectives on, inter alia, the role of government in citizens’ lives, the capitalist system and its advantages, and whether the American president should circle the globe bowing to dictators and apologizing for the role the United States has played in the world.

Another distinction between the two of you is that you can live with Jane’s views, while her strident rejection of yours has driven you to keep them secret.

If you want to know what it’s like to reveal your true political colors to your friends and professional colleagues, you could do no better than to read Roger L. Simon’s Turning Right at Hollywood and Vine: The Perils of Coming Out Conservative in Tinseltown.

That said, you have at least four options. None will entirely fulfill both your desire to follow the Golden Rule and your need to protect yourself from the strain of being a guest in Jane’s house -- to which, if she knew your sympathies, it’s unlikely you'd have been invited in the first place.

(1) You can tell her the truth in advance, saying that before you make plane reservations you’d like to clarify something that’s important to you both: you and she disagree politically.

Based on your description of her, she may well conclude you are a jerk, rescind her invitation, and reveal your politics to your classmates. These are the most likely consequences of your candor, and are among the reasons you’ve chosen to remain silent.

There’s a chance that, although stunned, she’ll still desire your company. If that’s the case, make a pact with her beforehand: “I’m happy to come, but let's make an iron-clad promise to each other not to talk about politics. Please. Some of my views are very different from yours. If you'd like, we can discuss them another time, but not on this visit. I really want to come as a friend to help, and I know that a discussion of anything political would lead to a debate, and we'd end up angry at each other. That would undercut my purpose for coming.  If you can abide by this promise, then I'd love to come as a friend.  If you think you cannot, I understand. I'll make the same promise myself and try not to burden you with my views about politics, either."

If she reacts with the condescending snub you anticipate, you could take the high road and say you understand that the gulf that separates your politics is too great for her comfort but that if she ever feels that she’d welcome your companionship without discussing politics, you stand ready to be a loyal friend.  Or, if her antipathy is too much to bear in stoic silence, tell her how disappointing it is to have your good will rebuffed because of her intolerance.

Her adult lifetime in academia in a liberal university town has shielded her from having to cope with views such as yours.  She hasn’t had to practice the virtue of tolerance. She's lived in a bubble.