This was my son Bobby’s first presidential election. The first time I voted for president, Richard Nixon soundly trounced the recently deceased George McGovern. By that I mean McGovern passed away recently, not shortly before running for president, although he could hardly have done worse if he had been dead.
Ironically, McGovern, so humiliated in the election, saw his reputation as a public servant grow over the years, while the triumphant Nixon’s fall from grace would have given Felix Baumgartner a run for his money.
Was this election as engaging for Bobby and his contemporaries? It’s apples and oranges in some ways. The culture was so different back then. We weren’t in the grip of a 24-hour news cycle. The Internet hadn’t turned every idiot with a computer into a potential pundit. The media had only begun the process of monetizing controversy at the expense of journalistic integrity. Party hacks were tentatively dipping their toes into the ooze of dirty tricks that have since become a fixture of political campaigns.
Not that everything was different in 1972. We were deeply divided over seemingly irreconcilable visions of the future. The incumbent president was in the process of extricating us from an expensive, unwinnable war without making the country look weak. The challenger made a number of public relations gaffes early that severely damaged his credibility.
Bob exercised the franchise differently than I did all those years ago. He used an absentee ballot, which may be the wave of the future. My wife took similar advantage of early voting, even though she goes to our polling place, Scarborough High School, every day as a classroom volunteer. Taking a ballot home allowed her to study the candidates and get on the record early in an election that meant a lot to her.
I’m not saying I took this election less seriously, but I did not vote early because I prefer to vote the American Way. I flip through the election materials while I’m standing in line and then go with the answer that “feels right” when I’m standing in the booth. Don’t judge me. This country was built by people who had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
Bobby’s absentee voting was the price of attending a great school for him. He’s in Chicago because when he was applying for college, we encouraged him to find the best fit regardless of location, in much the same way my parents encouraged me, with a couple of wrinkles: I could apply to as many schools as I wanted, as long as one of them was the University of Michigan, and I could go to the school that was the best fit for me, as long as it was named the University of Michigan. Absentee ballots never became necessary.
Another thing Bob did differently: asking his parents’ opinions. If there were people in my age group in 1972 that asked their parents what they thought of, well, anything, I did not travel in those circles. As baby boomers, we were far too busy telling our parents that everything they knew was wrong, saying “the streets belong to the people, man,” and asking them for more money. Never to inquire how they were voting and why.
Bobby, on the other hand, wanted to know how we viewed the three-way race for the U.S. Senate, and if we thought Scarborough really needed a new fire truck. I have no idea how he ended up voting. Maybe my generation has raised overly dependent children the way my parents raised rebellious ones. It felt good to be asked what we thought, though, as if we must have done something well as parents to have a teenage child who occasionally cares what we think.
Another thing or two occurred to me about the election. On Wednesday, Bobby texted us to say he was pretty proud of America right about then. I’m sure he meant it in a partisan way, but my reaction when I read it was not about winners and losers. My pride, and I was pretty proud myself, was about the system we have and the energy so many people put into this election. It’s still early, people are still in the gloating and pouting stage, which is to be expected, if not welcomed.
What impressed me about the election, as chaotic and ugly as it seemed at times, was how many people were actively engaged. There are a lot of smart and caring people in this country. It is easy to forget that when we put on our daily blinders. If this election served no other purpose, it showed how many people who, regardless of political affiliation, care enough about this country’s welfare to get involved. I’m grateful that my son got to feel that during his first election. With luck, it will inform his commitment to the process in the future.
So, if you were out stumping for Mitt Romney, thank you.
If you campaigned for President Obama, thank you.
If you were on a phone bank for a candidate, thank you.
If you volunteered to help run a polling place, thank you.
If you were manning a table for a greener Maine, or to raise money for an organization, thank you.
Finally, even though I hated every one of them, if you were one of the people who put signs on every conceivable square foot of roadside, thank you. Thank you even more for getting rid of them, but thank you for taking part in the process. You were helping to show the best of us.
Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mikelangworthy.