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The sharpest, most sustained exchanges centered on Ron himself. ”The circumstances of my birth,“ Unz says coolly. ”That was the main thing they argued about.“ The conflicts raged loudly, constantly, in the tiny house on a ridge in working-class Tujunga. There were only two bedrooms, and the walls were paper-thin. ”Certainly it was never violence or anything like that,“ Unz adds. A moment later, he muses, as if to take the sting out: ”What people regard as standard in family life has changed in 30 years. When you watch some of the old TV shows from the 1960s . . . the ongoing level of bickering and quarreling was considered normal and standard.“
Unz met his father only twice while growing up, the first time at a playground when he was about 4. It was an unemotional, businesslike meeting. His father seemed ”tall and old.“ Between two brief childhood visits and his attendance at Ron Unz‘s graduation from Harvard College, he had no contact at all with his son. (The elder Unz declined to speak for this story. ”I don’t want to discuss it, and I don‘t want my name in the newspaper,“ he said.)
Raised in a household with strong-willed adults, Unz was pulled in contrary directions. His grandmother took him along to synagogue with her, and he even learned enough Hebrew to be bar-mitzvahed. But he never embraced religion and didn’t really identify with his Jewishness. He also went along with his mother -- to demonstrations against the Vietnam War and precinct-walking for Democratic nominee George McGovern during the presidential campaign of 1972. ”It‘s all a little fuzzy, it was a long time ago,“ Unz says again. ”When my mother took me on those anti-war marches carrying a candle, it was just sort of ’I want you to come with me, because we‘re fighting the evil Vietnam War.’“
Unz sank into a vivid imaginary life. He learned to distance himself from adult passions, listening mutely as his mother and his grandparents argued. He became a secular person unattached to the fierce religious and political views of his parent and grandparents.
Instead, Unz found solace in science fiction, mostly Isaac Asimov, and he spent endless hours playing solitary games out in the expansive yard perched in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Unz‘s favorite was an elaborate board test of battleship strategy, which he eagerly mastered enough to trounce any child who could be talked into playing against him. Unz remained a loner through much of his childhood, never inviting playmates to his own home. His family was an embarrassment, his frayed clothes and small, dingy house reminders that he came from an unconventional background. ”These are not things that I really discuss very comfortably. The fact that I was raised on welfare, it’s something I find very uncomfortable to put out there,“ Unz says, shifting in his seat.
It‘s far easier sledding to recall the intellectual challenges he took up. He excelled as a student and remembers with notable precision individual papers he wrote in junior high school. As a teenager, he was selected for a special advanced-studies program at Walter Reed Junior High.
”He would be among the top few students I ever taught,“ says Bill Fitz-Gibbon, a mainstay of the accelerated program at Walter Reed and one of Unz’s main mentors in life. ”He had confidence, but not arrogance. He could go quite deeply into whatever would come up, but then explain it to other students without lording it over them.“
At North Hollywood High, Unz made a name for himself as a brilliant budding scientist and mathematician. He also pursued studies in ancient history, impressing his professors at UCLA, where he began taking college courses in his junior year of high school. ”When this guy talks, you can hear the tumblers turn. He‘s a genius,“ says Mortimer Chambers, a professor of ancient history at UCLA. ”I assumed that he would become a theoretical physicist and stay in that Einstein world. I thought he would win the Nobel Prize, honest to God.“
In his senior year, Unz won the prestigious Westinghouse Science Prize for a paper he’d written on black holes. The work, he says now, took only a couple of days, and he was surprised to beat out other high school students whose experiments took them months to accomplish. Unz ended up facing an unusual dilemma for a kid raised on welfare -- whether to go to California Institute of Technology, Princeton or Harvard. He consulted his high school mentors and headed for Harvard.
At Harvard, he registered to vote for the first time, in the presidential election of 1980. He signed up as a Republican in order to vote for Congressman John Anderson, a moderate who had attacked Ronald Reagan‘s economic theories as ”smoke and mirrors.“ Unz doesn’t remember domestic policy interesting him much, but does remember despising Jimmy Carter, both for his sanctimonious moralizing style and for what he considered a disastrous foreign policy.
Ron Unz looks dolefully around at the ruins of lunch in the cavernous Marquis Ballroom at the Anaheim Marriott, where Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes has just delivered a stem-winder to the state Republican Convention. Forbes has swept out, with his large entourage, to a standing ovation from a crowd of lukewarm admirers. ”Look at all the money he‘s spending. He’s down at 5 percent after all that money,“ Unz marvels. ”Lots of money, but no movement. That lets you know the battle is not fought in paid media, it‘s fought in free media. After 1996, Forbes should have disappeared for a while. Disappeared.“