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Monday, June 29, 2009

The Race of '72


When I was a little runt I used to go with my mother to the polls every Election Day. They had voting booths with curtains back then, which reminded me of the dressing room at JC Penney, where there were 3 mirrors placed at different angles. I liked looking at the reflection of the reflection of the reflection and wishing that I could just step through all those shrinking mirrors and become really small. I’d imagine all the things I could do if I were fly-sized, until my mother would shout from the other side of the curtain, “Why is it taking you so damned long to put on a pair of pants?”

In the dressing room on Election Day, my mother actually let me press the levers for the candidates and issues she selected. It was a great way to educate me and instill in me the need to always carry an additional outfit on the first Tuesday in November. And when we exited, there was always a polling volunteer handing out “I Changed My Pants” stickers. Or something like that. It was a long time ago.

The '68 presidential election was the last time I went into the voting booth with Mom. The polling volunteers decided, at age eleven, I was too old to see my mother in her underwear anymore and told her not to bring me back.

That was unfortunate, because if I had been able to get in there with her during the '72 election, I would have quickly pressed the McGovern lever and checked her out. She voted for Nixon three times in her life, despite Checkers, Vietnam, and the swelling tide of Watergate. By then my adolescent revolutionary period was in full swing. I had spent the summer with my liberal-agenda Aunt Kay in Denver and stayed up all night watching the Democratic convention on the black and white TV. We both listened carefully to George McGovern's "Come Home America" acceptance speech, which, as far as I'm concerned, is still unsurpassed in the goosebump meter rating. We had a neighbor whose fiancée was missing in action then, and I thought if the Vietnam War were to continue, it wouldn't be long until I could be sloshing through the swamps of the Mekong Delta.

So beginning early in 1972, right before I had to make that terrifying transition from junior to senior high school, I started doing telephone canvassing at McGovern headquarters in Hyde Park in Tampa. After school I would ride my bicycle there, come in, tear off a computer list of Democrats to call to ask three questions:

1.) What do you think of the Democratic candidate this year?
2.) Could you please tell me if you intend to vote for the Democratic candidate this year?
3.) Do you need a ride to the polls in November?

The third question was only asked if question 2 was yes, which was almost never.
Looking back, I see that it’s a pretty good look at how desperate the Democrats were. They didn’t want us to say “McGovern,” because they were hoping, I guess, that rubber-stamp voting Democrats might not know he was the candidate, and would tow the party line. Also, they were relying on 15-year-olds to gather their statistical information.

Apparently, someone had already called all the Democrats in town and said, "Hey, if you hear some kid whose voice is changing call you from McGovern HQ, tell him you wouldn't vote for George McGovern if he were running for dog catcher."

I got that answer a lot. Given the paranoid environment and the dirty tricks campaigns going on, I wondered if all of our outgoing calls were being funneled to one person who fed us back the dog catcher line. It wasn't funny after the first 50 times, so despite the rules, I would go outside the three questions and take issue with the turncoat Democrat on the other end of the phone.

"Well, sir, if you were a more educated Democrat, you would know that dog catcher is not an elected position." Or: "Ma’am, McGovern cannot run for dog catcher. Spiro Agnew has a life-long appointment to that job."

I would even try to trick them and get them to abstain by offering them rides to the polls after the polls were already closed. "Well, I'm sorry you won’t be supporting the candidate this year, but we want to make sure that everyone gets out and votes this year. Will you be needing a ride to the polls? We could pick you up at 7:30 PM."

Click. Slam. Ding.

It was Phone Canvassing Roulette. You would never know who you were going to talk to or predict the temperament of the party whose number you dialed. I learned new obscenities in the summer from men who defiled me when I interrupted their viewing of the World Series. It was a shocking exploration in human behavior.

My friend and schoolmate Mary Lou made the worst call. The lady who answered told Mary Lou told her she'd gotten her out of her deathbed because she thought it was her daughter calling. Mary Lou was inconsolable. We sensitive Democrats, especially those of us who weren't yet old enough to change clothes in the voting booth, had yet to develop thick hides. I tried to convince her it was probably just a joke. After all, who uses the word "deathbed" anymore, except possibly romance writers? It didn’t work. Mary Lou went home early that night.

The whole volunteer experience was made worthwhile when I called a woman who said she had listened to McGovern's speech on TV, and there was nothing in the world that could keep her from voting for him in November. "I'm 74 years old and blind, but I'd like to come do some work for the Senator. I could stuff envelopes or answer the phone." I put her on hold and went and got the volunteer coordinator to talk to her. I never followed through on what happened, or if she ended up joining the campaign.

It was enough to know that she was just willing to.

I worked tirelessly night after night there, and as the weather cooled, so did McGovern’s chances of winning. Maybe it was the fact that Thomas Eagleton, his first running mate, dropped out when it was learned he had hospitalized, it was reported, for “exhaustion.” Or maybe it was because McGovern was just too liberal for the time. Either way, he never stood a chance. Still, mainly because I was young and naïve, I maintained a glimmer of hope. I thought that maybe the numbers were wrong or that people would come to their senses on Tuesday.

The tiny, run-down, rented building on South Boulevard was packed full of local politicians and business leaders on election night. The media were shining lights and popping flashes every time you turned around. Everyone there was at least a generation older than Mary Lou and me, and the crowd was loud and somehow not sad. The champagne flowed, the local Democrats schmoozed. People even laughed, but Mary Lou and I were brokenhearted and silent. It was my first volunteer job, and I had done everything I possibly could and failed. It was a tough lesson. I called my mom to come pick us up. Even though her candidate won by a landslide, and McGovern only carried Massachusetts and DC, she didn't rub it in.

But I did.

Two years later I was flying back from my summer pilgrimage to Aunt Kay's in Denver. It was August 8, 1974. I got off the plane in Tampa and stepped on the escalator. I saw my mother at the top, and I held up my copy of the Denver Post with the splash headline: "Nixon to Resign!"

I stepped off the escalator and gave her a hug. "Told you so," I said.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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