The country is gearing up with great anticipation for the inauguration of President Barack Obama after a long and grinding election campaign. This got me thinking back to the first election I can remember . . . one that pundits frequently compare with the one we just lived through . . . an election that gave rise to great expectations for a new direction for America and its people.
The presidential election of 1960 is when I first became aware of politics. At age nine I knew who President Eisenhower was; he was the only President I could remember and I had even seen him up close a couple years earlier when my parents took me to the local airport in Toledo, Ohio to watch him arrive on the presidential plane "Columbine" – before it was simply referred to as "Air Force One." I guess I had just assumed he would always be President, but one day at school I noticed that some of my classmates were wearing small metallic pins on their shirts and jackets, each with the face and name of an unfamiliar man who was running for President to replace Eisenhower. One name was somewhat familiar – Nixon. I had heard that name before, but I was not really sure who he was or what he did.
At home that evening I asked my parents why President Eisenhower was quitting. They explained to me that a person could only be president for eight years after which he was required to step down so that the American people could select a new leader. I mentioned the pins I had seen at school that day and my parents told me that people often wore these to show support for a particular candidate; these were the men who hoped to become the new President in an election later that year. I asked my parents who they hoped would win the election. It turned out they were supporting Nixon just as they had supported Eisenhower in previous elections. Our family always voted Republican, they told me.
A couple days later my Dad presented me with two or three different pins with Nixon’s face and name on them. I pinned them to my jacket and proudly wore them to school the next day. Having proclaimed my allegiance to Nixon and the Republican party, I now found myself facing off with friends and classmates who were supporting someone named Kennedy . . . Humphrey . . . Rockefeller . . . people I had never heard of before, and they wore buttons with the unfamiliar faces of their candidates. But I was convinced that these people were wrong for the job. Nixon was my man even though I didn’t really know who he was . . . or even what he looked like until just a few days before.
That summer my friends and I spent our days riding our bicycles around the neighborhood, swimming at the local recreation park pool, and hanging out at the local drugstore where we combined our nickels, dimes, and quarters to purchase candy and comic books at the front counter and rounds of cherry cokes at the fountain in back. There was the occasional game of Cowboys and Indians, and War, and we continued to argue who would be on which side and who would kill or be killed. But that summer we also played a new game. This time, when we chose sides, we argued about who was going to be a Republican, who was going to be a Democrat, and it usually came down to the side for whom our parents planned to vote in the upcoming election. Instead of pointing pretend weapons at one another and making gun noises, we pointed fingers and mouthed what we had heard our parents say when they watched the candidates on TV as they campaigned and gave speeches. Thinking back on it even now I can still remember in rather vivid detail the venom with which we castigated the new enemy. Not Germans. Not Japanese. Not Commies. But people who looked and sounded just like us.
Nixon lost that November by one of the slimmest margins in the popular vote. I was disappointed . . . crestfallen even. My candidate had lost and there was nothing I could do about it. Everything had now changed. Life would never be the same again. But I got over it as most kids of nine do. Twelve years later, in 1972, I had a chance to set it all right. Nixon ran again and won the election in 1968 and now he was running for reelection. I was 21 and it was time to put away childish games. This time it was for real. I was finally able to cast that important vote. I pulled the lever for McGovern.
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