Eat, drink, be merry and avoid politics

Posted: Nov 25, 2004 12:00 AM

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing

He chastens and hastens His will to make known.

The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.

Sing praises to His name; He forgets not His own.

We sang the music of that lovely hymn in public school when I was a child, but singing it now might provoke arrest. God has been chased out of the schoolhouse in many places in America. In Maryland public schools, the kids can thank anybody on Thanksgiving as long as they don't thank God.

But once upon a time, children were allowed to love the sentiment and the wordplay. That's particularly apt this Thanksgiving as we give thanks to our Marines fighting the wicked in Iraq so that we can look forward to winning a war to define the civilization our children - and the children of others - will inherit.

I will celebrate Thanksgiving with my extended family of 30 in Washington, the city that gave John Kerry 91 percent of its vote. I'll sit at a table closely reflecting that statistic. I might like to raise a toast to the president of the United States, and to the voters who voted to keep him where he is, but unless I've had too much sauvignon blanc I'll keep the peace. We can safely discuss sex but, at our table, like a lot of others across America this week, politics will give us mostly heartburn.

Amiable discussion of politics hasn't been possible in my circle since the day FDR died. I remember fierce fights over whether Harry Truman should have dropped the atom bomb, although some of the young people who were the angriest probably wouldn't have been at the table if he hadn't, and neither would their fathers. Cranberry sauce the color of the blood left on beaches across the Pacific stained the tablecloth that year.

After Adlai Stevenson lost twice, the rebels at the table poked fun at Dwight Eisenhower's stammering "stupidity," although the fathers and uncles of some of the mockers at the table didn't think the man who led them across Europe was stupid at all. Uncle Jack's "I Like Ike" button so upset one nephew that he spilled his mushroom gravy on a new tie. (Yes, children, the men at table wore ties in those days.)

A few Thanksgivings later, some at the table were persuaded that JFK stole the presidential election of '60 in Illinois, and others were glad he did if he did, and some of us who were the first in an immigrant family to go to college were thrilled that the nation's capital would finally get the high culture we thought was only what we deserved.

The Johnson and Nixon years set off food fights over the Vietnam War and Watergate. You might have thought we were courtside at a professional basketball game. One young woman in bell-bottom jeans and beads raised her glass to Ho Chi Minh and Jane Fonda. A few years later she was watching Jane Fonda exercise videos, more concerned with her thighs than men at arms. Feathers flew when Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, and at a later dinner some diners imagined Jimmy Carter was the turkey.

Nancy Reagan raised more hackles than Ronnie from the burgeoning feminists who dismissed her as the Stepford wife of a movie star who never really shimmered. (What really galled some of us was that she wore a size 2 and could have all the pumpkin pie she wanted.)

Propriety disappeared with the miniskirt and then with piercings in strange places, and with the Clinton years one of the 6-year olds shocked Grandpa with a question about verbal if not oral sex. The Thanksgiving that fell with the hanging chads during the Florida countdown required an official notice that anyone who brought up the election would get no marshmallows on their sweet potatoes.

Well, as Gilda Radner used to say on Saturday Night Live: "It's always something." That's the charm of these family gatherings, and Thanksgiving, still unspoiled by the commercialization that has soiled our other holidays, is the most amiable of all. So let's keep our sense of humor. Tom Lehrer, the comic songwriter, kept his by rewriting my favorite Thanksgiving hymn:

We gather together to ask the lord's blessing

For turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce.

It was slightly distressing, but now we're convalescing

So sing praises to his name and forget not to floss.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody.