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Published: Sunday, 10/31/2004

The kind of citizen this country needs

WASHINGTON - My wonderful mother-in-law died last week, and as I sit before a blank computer screen contemplating my last political column before our confounding election, I realize I don't know how this lifelong Republican voted.

Somehow, in and out of the hospital in recent weeks, she obtained her absentee ballot and sent it in long before the deadline in her battleground state of Pennsylvania.

Tirzah was exactly the kind of citizen this country needs and relies upon. She was always well-informed and read the newspaper each day with eagerness and thoroughness. Then she would move on to magazines, devouring them with a daunting relentlessness. Finally, she would insist upon watching the evening news. She was a party loyalist but only to a point where it fit her convictions. At one time she had been an active precinct committeewoman until she was purged by the Goldwater forces.

Physically tiny but stunningly resilient, she was born with her dukes up, always ready to battle for justice and against bureaucratic stupidity. She could wrap a governor around her finger or make a beefy city official whimper. As a consumer and civic activist, she had no peer. She had no patience with incompetence or, worse, perfidy. She was a sucker for kindness.

Four years ago she voted for George W. Bush, convinced he could be a good president if he grew in office. But lately she had grown disillusioned with him. She was appalled by the war in Iraq and the way it was rationalized. She warned from the beginning there were too few troops on the ground. She worried about worsening relations with other countries and the perception abroad that the United States has become arrogant and hypocritical. She found Mr. Bush's insistence that he was doing as good a job as possible in the war on terror stubborn and inconsistent with the facts.

Long before journalists began to focus on Mr. Bush's use of his religious faith in setting public policy and in demanding public tax money for his faith-based initiatives, this faithful churchgoer was uneasy about the potential for blurring separation of church and state.

She fretted about Mr. Bush's strident tone on social issues, such as stem-cell research, and complained that all his talk about uniting, not dividing, the country seemed to be so much hot air. She was distressed by what she viewed as the harsh negativity of his campaign.

A Pittsburgher, Tirzah knew Teresa Heinz Kerry and admired her spunk, her philanthropy, and the strict but loving way she reared her three sons. But she was also troubled by John Kerry, concerned that he might not be the right man for dangerous times.

She didn't buy all of Mr. Bush's accusations of flip-flopping against the senator, but she did find Mr. Kerry's nuanced, shifting positions confusing and worrisome and his occasional pandering irksome.

Always frugal, she liked what the Massachusetts senator said about fiscal discipline and getting the President's soaring deficit under control. But in studying Mr. Kerry's votes in Congress, she didn't find a pattern that convinced her he would ride herd on spending. She wasn't worried about his "liberal" label; labels didn't mean as much to her as performance. And she didn't mind that he opposed the war in Vietnam after he came back from fighting. But she was concerned that his name, after 20 years, wasn't on a significant piece of legislation.

In her last years of life she lived in a cheerful, well-run retirement village, surrounded by educated people who knew how to have a good time and who liked her immensely. Occasionally, they would ask me to visit to talk about national politics and, always, I was delighted at the quantity and quality of their probing questions.

I know she voted, although I don't know for certain whether she voted for Mr. Bush or for Mr. Kerry. If Mr. Bush wins, she would have monitored him closely, urging him to be less partisan, less rigid, and more receptive to new ideas and far more conscientious about money and the lives of our soldiers. If Mr. Kerry wins, she would have demanded more specificity, an end to waffling - whether real or perceived - a fierce commitment to putting the needs of the country first, and first-rate appointees.

Like many, she was worried about what happens after the election, afraid that whether Republicans or Democrats win, half the country will be angry and bitter. But she also expressed faith in the collective wisdom of Americans and their optimism in the future.

Tirzah was a great patriot and would be dismayed at the cascading number of accounts of voter intimidation, challenges, fraud, and lawsuits. The idea of other countries suggesting they send international monitors to ensure fair elections in America would have dumbfounded her.

If anybody messes with her ballot, I am certain, somehow, she will be back, dukes up.



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