I cast my first presidential ballot for Richard Nixon.
In my defense, I was six at the time.
My first grade teacher, Mrs. Berger, must have wanted us to feel like we were active citizens of the democracy in which we lived – a democracy that was rather less polarized than it is today, which is saying something considering this was 1972 and the Vietnam War was still going on. We didn’t know much about any war. Our parents were too old to be drafted, our siblings were too young, and the leafy suburb of Philadelphia we lived in was not really a hotbed of protest one way or the other.
Nevertheless, we knew there was an election coming. You couldn’t avoid it, really. Even first-graders pick up on things when there is no other option. Everyone around us was talking about it. The newspapers they used as teaching aides were full of the story. You couldn’t even watch cartoons without seeing somebody prattling on about the matter. Election! Vote!
I remember my teacher coming into class one day and announcing that we were indeed going to be voting for a presidential candidate. We then spent the better part of a week discussing voting as a practice and an ideal – something I have endeavored always to live up to ever since – and what, precisely, a president was and why people would vote for one.
There are times when I think that last lesson needs to be taught more often. The average American today looks at a president as an odd cross between a personal manservant, a blue-haired maiden aunt, a scapegoat for the world’s ills, and an omnipotent magician.
Most Americans look at God the same way, come to think of it. No wonder our politics are so bizarre.
We spent a while going over all that, and then it was time to cast our ballots. We each got a slip of paper and were told to write our candidate’s name on it, fold it up carefully so nobody could see our choice, and slide it into the hole in the big cardboard box at the front of the class when we were done. If we couldn’t remember who was running, we had only to look up at the board, where the two main candidates’ names were written in that unnaturally clear handwriting that primary-school teachers have: Richard Nixon; George McGovern. Pick one.
There were twenty of us in that class, and as I recall it was a landslide victory for the incumbent – something along the order of 19-1. Nixon’s the one! Nixon’s the one! Nixon’s the one we’d heard of before!
Thus we learned a valuable lesson about the importance of name-recognition in political campaigns.
It also taught us that just because something is familiar doesn’t mean it is necessarily worth supporting. My next clear political memories all center on Watergate.
But we had participated, and we were proud of having done so. As by rights we should have been. Your rights as a citizen depend on your responsibilities as a citizen, which is why you should be voting next month and why those who seek to suppress the vote of American citizens should be strung up by their tender bits until they apologize and the impediments they’ve enacted have been removed.
Go vote. Your first-grade teacher would be proud.