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JOSEPH N. BELL

Orange County Liberal Learns to Coexist

July 01, 1989

Some years ago, I wrote an article published in Look magazine entitled "America's Kinkiest County." I thought it was funny, but a lot of the Orange County power structure didn't.

A few days after it came out, there was a ring at our front door. I opened it, and there huddled in the darkness of a winter evening was an elderly couple I had seen occasionally walking around the neighborhood.

"We saw your article," said the man, and paused. I waited for the attack. Then he said, almost wistfully: "I didn't know there were any more of us in the whole county."

Although that was more than a decade ago, I haven't perceived that things have changed a whole lot since then. In style, maybe, but not in substance. Liberal Democrats in Orange County still tend to huddle in the dark, reluctant to identify themselves--not out of fear but mostly out of a weary disinclination to retread the same old arguments with the county's vociferous and voluminous guardians of the Right.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of this incident when a piece was published in this section about the problems that Orange County liberals have on the dating scene. One dismayed, still-young divorcee wrote: "I have lived in this area for 14 years, and I have yet to meet a married or single inhabitant who does not believe that Reagan was a gift from God, that prayer must be an integrated part of the school curriculum, and that recreational machine guns are our birthright."

Well, it isn't much different for those of us to whom dating isn't a concern. And it always starts with the assumption on the part of virtually every Orange Countian with whom I come into casual contact that you are one of them--especially if you appear to have the right economic and ethnic credentials.

This cuts pretty deep and makes for a certain number of ethical problems for the liberal living in Orange County. Take the plumber I used for many years--until he retired recently. Because I work frequently at home, I always try to hang out with people who come to repair our facilities, hoping--a foolhardy assumption for a liberal--to learn enough to do it myself the next time. So I spent a lot of time early on with this plumber. He didn't seem to mind because he liked to talk. And most of his talk came out of the John Birch Society Blue Book.

But he was also a terrific plumber. So I had an ethical problem. Should I look for another plumber who doesn't know the eccentricities of my pipes and also probably isn't nearly as good just so the fees I pay him won't be going into a fund to get us out of the U.N. or prevent fluoridation of our water supplies? I kept the plumber.

Same thing with my barber. I've gone to her for 15 years now, and she knows exactly how I want my hair cut. She's also inexpensive. For years, we talked mostly about Las Vegas and the Angels and the problems of raising kids. Then one day, in the midst of trimming my eyebrows, she allowed as how all people with AIDS should be colonized somewhere so they can't expose the rest of us. I asked, a little timidly, if she knew how AIDS was transmitted, and her shears began to snip angrily so I backed off. Once again, the ethical question. I solved it by reading or sleeping in the barber chair.

Now these may be cowardly acts, but they are pragmatic. I like living here, and I don't want to spend all my time trying to persuade local citizens that there are quite reasonable arguments made by perfectly good Americans that all homeless people aren't bums, that homosexuals are not homosexuals by choice, and that no harm would be done to the Constitution by registering guns.

Because my background as a small-town, Midwestern good ol' boy, church affiliation, and social connections when we moved to Newport Beach three decades ago threw us at first into a politically reactionary group of people, I've had to learn how to pick friends who either see things generally the way I do or can discuss political differences rationally. That's taken some doing in Orange County, even though my associates at UC Irvine were always there to fall back on.

I've been fascinated with the recent surveys that keep telling us that Orange Countians are really quite liberal on many social issues. If that's true, they certainly haven't reflected it in the voting booth. Or among plumbers or barbers or bankers or most of the corporate executives I've found myself in conversation with at cocktail parties.

In the Orange County I inhabit, I remember--not untypically--that after I published a piece in a national magazine about how my wife and I took each of our children individually to Washington on an "American Heritage" trip, one of my conservative friends said, quite seriously: "I didn't know you liberals did that sort of thing."

I have a publicist friend who used to write speeches for John Wayne, and one of the ways he got his kicks was by slipping in quotes from obscure political liberals or socialists that sounded good in the context of the speech and were thus never caught. In a sense, I suppose I've been doing the same thing in Orange County for a number of years.

The difference, I guess, is that I've made friends with a satisfying number of people who disagree with me, but we respect each other in an impatient sort of way. That, I believe, is how it is supposed to work in this country.

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