In 1968, I became infected with a bug. No, not a social disease, smartass. It wasn’t a flu, or a virus, or a bacteria, although some consider it a plague. It was campaign politics.
I had watched eight years earlier as a young, vigorous Irish Catholic senator from Boston had run for, and ultimately won the presidency. It had piqued my interest in such things, no doubt fueled by the fact that I was a part-Irish Catholic kid, who had been born in Boston, and my mother (an Italian Catholic who grew up in Boston) was for him.
I found out during this time that she had actually met Kennedy when he ran for congress; this, coupled with the fact that she had briefly dated Chuck Conners in college (The Rifleman was one of my favorite TV shows), pretty much solidified my opinion that my mother was goddamn cool.
My father, another Bostonian who had a nodding acquaintance with Lutheranism, was for Nixon. This wasn’t the Watergate Nixon; this was the Nixon who had been Vice President to Ike, a pretty well liked President and former winner of The War, so my father’s lapse in judgment was excusable. His parents were (probably) Republicans as well. His father had been raised in a Catholic orphanage which had beaten all of that out of his system. His mother was a rather more devote protestant who once told me that electing Kennedy would mean having the Pope run America. Again, being a part-Italian Catholic, it seemed to me that that would be just fine. I only learned about Pius XII later.
My first blush with political theater would turn into an intense attraction for the drama, fervor and foolishness of campaigns for political office. For me, politics was a roller coaster ride. Between the Kennedy assassination, Johnson announcing his intention not to run again (which he did on my 17th birthday), politics was a constant on the evening news every day, and we only had 3 network channels; this was before Fox (yes, it was a magical time).
The big push for me came in high school. My favorite teacher was politically active; he had our local state senator, Steny Hoyer, come to our class and talk about the political process. This would have been less strange if it had been civics class instead of algebra, but Hoyer was an interesting speaker and only a few years older than us. He was later elected to congress and became, and still is, the Minority Whip.
I got semi-involved in political appearances for Joe Tydings, whom I knew nothing about, except he championed a bill for no-knock entry and wrote an article about gun control published in Playboy magazine. Tydings lost re-election in ’70 when eastern shore conservatives turned out to vote for Republican J. Glenn Beall Jr., with a campaign slogan of “Playboy Joe must go!”. Republicans always come up with the clever names and sayings; too bad they don’t spend some of that creativity on fixing problems.
I joined the nascent Young Democrats club at school, and then it was election time. The main contenders were in the presidential race: Hubert H. Humprey, Johnson’s VP versus the comeback kid Richard Nixon (later to become the go-away kid). This alone would have been enough to get things going, but there was more. In addition to the presidential election, Maryland was voting for a congressman. Hervey Machen, running for his third term, would also go down to defeat along with Humphrey. Machen lost to the Republican Larry Hogan. Hogan is notable for being the only Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to vote for the impeachment of Nixon in 1974. His son is the current governor of Maryland (remind me to tell you a funny story about me and his son sometime).
Part of the attraction of campaigns was the stuff: posters, signs, big and small, buttons. I still like Humphrey’s campaign button:
Humphrey’s campaign song was a re-write of Step To The Rear (Let A Winner Lead the Way) from the Broadway musical How Now, Dow Jones. Catchy tune, you can find it on line if you look (and care).
Nixon’s button said “Nixon’s the One”. He was one, all right. His theme was the Song of the Volga Boatmen, or something.
Humphrey and Nixon were competing (sorta) with George Wallace, who got just under ten million votes (over 13% of the total) and earned 46 electoral votes (it was the last time a 3rd party candidate for president won any state; Wallace won 5). His supporters were…special. I recall we were handing out election material at a traffic stop and I offered some to some folks in a pick-up truck. The driver had a big smile on his face and said with an accent from waaay further south than Maryland “We’re for Wallace!” (he pronounced it “Wow-lace”). I pivoted to the congressional campaign, to which he smilingly replied “We’re for Wowlace!”. I thanked him and they drove on to the cross-burning, or wherever they were headed.
Waking up the morning after election day with both my candidates having lost, was sobering. Only a year later, Playboy Joe was no longer in the Senate and making scads of money in a law firm rather than crumbs of money in the US government. We still had a Democratic congress, but I personally felt lost. Being only 17, I had no concept of how much politics had changed with that election. The South, which had been a Democratic stronghold, shifted to the right, some say because of Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was the beginning of what we have here and now.
Over the years I had less to do with campaigning, altho I followed elections and political news. I recall the morning after Regan was elected I was in line at a store (probably a liquor store, and, yes, they are open early in the a.m.). The fellow ahead of me asked the clerk what she thought about the election. She grimaced a little and said she was fearful that Regan might start a war. “Well”, the guy replied, “maybe a little war is what we need to get this country back on track.” We both just stared at him as he gathered up his Red, White & Blue beer and Slim Jims and walked out. History tells us we did manage to live thru the Regan years, altho I don’t recall them as the magical time some conservatives remember.
Now another Disruptor is in the White House, after a campaign like none I’ve ever seen. This one, unlike Regan, has no experience running a government of any size, and seems to have skin so thin it cannot be measured by modern scientific instruments. I’m sure we’ll get thru it.
Sure, the next person (woman?) in office will spend their first 100 days fixing what this clown fucked up. And probably rebuilding the parts of the White House that were either Rococo’d to death, or burned down by the mob. But we’ll survive this; if there’s any entity that’s Too Big To Fail, it’s US.