I saw a small notice on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Friday October 26: “Romney will return to Ohio this evening with his running mate Paul Ryan for a rally at North Canton Hoover High School.”
It took me back to my senior year at North Canton Hoover High School. It was May of 1980. Our Senior Recognition Assembly was coming up and we found out that our guest speaker (usually someone quickly forgotten) was going to be GOP presidential hopeful George H. W. Bush. He was still in the race against that actor from California. The father of one of my classmates was involved with George Bush’s Ohio campaign and he arranged for the honor of the appearance.
I was one of those Library Nerds–the kids who volunteered to work at the circulation desk. I voraciously read all the newspapers and magazines I could. I was deeply suspicious about the activities of the CIA and, since George Bush had been its head, suspicious of him. I had also been through the most rigorous political indoctrination that my social studies teacher could devise. In my quarter on political and economic systems, I learned that Capitalism was the best and Socialism and Communism were both evil (and pretty much interchangeable in their evilness).
One day my government teacher asked my class, “Have any of you been to see a Jane Fonda movie?” As I had recently been to see The China Syndrome, I raised my hand, along with a few other students. “Well, you’re supporting Communism!” we were told. “Would any of you vote for Ted Kennedy for president?” was the next question. No hands went up. “Well, good. Because if you would–you’d be supporting Communism, too.” I had no idea what he was talking about. But what little I knew about Ted Kennedy led me to say under my breath, “I don’t think Ted Kennedy is so bad.” Which led Mohan, who sat in front me, to turn around and ask, “What are you, some kind of Communist?” I was taken aback, offended, and started trying to figure out what was really going on.
The day of our Senior Recognition Assembly arrived. We filed into the gym, all 1200-plus students–underclassmen in the stands and Seniors in the place of honor on the floor in our assigned seats. Mine was in the front row. Right in front of the TV cameras: local affiliates from Cleveland and (gulp!) the networks. We got noisy and restless waiting for the
candidate speaker to arrive. Finally, word got to us that he was on campus. The cameras rolled, and George Bush was introduced. The student body stood up and roared its approval, as if our much-loved Vikings had scored another Friday-night touchdown.
Except for me. I stayed in my seat. I didn’t plan on it–I just didn’t support the candidate on stage. I didn’t think of the us as “props” for a photo opp–I didn’t have that bit of vocabulary yet. But I didn’t want those cameras focusing in on me as a supporter of George Bush. I looked around and noticed that my friend Kelly was also still seated. I was glad I was not the only one–I’m not sure if we were the only two.
George started off his speech with an apology and a joke, “Sorry for being a little late. My plane was behind Ted Kennedy’s coming into the airport. It only had one left wing and couldn’t fly very fast.” It was another touchdown–people stood, cheered, laughed, and applauded. With a couple of exceptions. The rest of the speech was unremarkable.
My favorite moment of that day came after the speech–and I had nothing to do with it. George Bush was escorted out the back door of the school, near the cafeteria where my mom worked for over 30 years. The ladies came out in the to see the candidate go by and he took the opportunity to press the flesh. He came down the line to my mom’s boss, June. She was a short, stocky woman with no-nonsense gray hair and steel-rimmed glasses. He looked down at June and stuck out his hand, “Hi, I’m George Bush and I’m running for president.” June looked him in the eye, took his hand, and said, “Well, I’ll shake your hand–but I’m still not going to vote for you.”
I aspire to be that polite and forthright.
My reminiscence inspired me to ask my fellow Scrogues what event, conversation, or realization led them to become politically aware. In this time of cynicism, exhaustion, and frustration, it’s good to be reminded of our ability to be inspired and moved.
I think part of me has been politically aware since I was young (I used to read TIME when I was 10, and I followed politics after seeing the West Wing), but the first time I knew I wanted to do this for a career was when I interned with the Labour party in the UK. Watching their 2010 election happen – even though the campaign was so different from what happens here – it was fantastic to see. Standing in Parliament at midnight staring through the windows, I knew that it was what I wanted.
My dad’s father served in the PA State House for a decade, so I grew up in a politically oriented environment. I started out pretty far Right–like, “Jack Kemp for President” territory–because my grandfather was my role model and he took me under his wing to get me interested in politics. To his great credit, though, he introduced me to Democrats he respected. He said he didn’t necessarily agree with them but he respected them as people and as politicians and so was always ready to listen to them. This was the mid- and late-’80s, when compromise was still an objective of the political system.
My great watershed moment came when I served as a page at the GOP National Convention in News Orleans in 1988, and I stood near the very front of the convention hall floor, packed in like a sardine, to listen to the Gipper’s farewell speech. We all cried, and our hearts were full for this grand old man and hero of the party. I admit, I didn’t then fully understand the impact of his policies, but I greatly admired the icon, and here he was, the former “cowboy” heading off into his final sunset.
Later in the convention, I found myself put in charge of distributing the party’s platform to all the delegates–except the Secret Service wouldn’t let the pages onto the floor of the convention hall. James Baker ended up calling me–twice–ragging me to get the platform distributed. I had explained to him each time the problems we were having with access. Finally, I said, politely but firmly, that he needed to take care of things with the Secret Service and then we would be more than happy to do our duty but until then we were powerless and thank you for your help sir I hope you have a great day–and I hung up on him. Two minutes later, I got a phone call from the Secret Service giving us clearance. I still look over my shoulder on dark streets, though.
In the Bush, Sr. years, I drifted toward the center, and there I’ve stayed, although most Republicans look at me like I’m a Leftie because the party has drifted so far Right. I’ve lost the fervor I used to have for politics, which I used to follow like a spectator sport, because the atmosphere has grown so poisonous. I miss those good old days when politicians trusted each other and acted civilly, and compromise was the order of the day.
My politicization was a diffuse and gradual process, fed by the cultural climate as well as political events. But I’ll describe an experience — however secondhand — that was key to radicalizing me. As an 18-year-old, I was watching the 1968 Democratic presidential convention from Chicago on TV. The rioting was hair-raising and eye-opening. But I’ll never forget what happened when Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff deviated from a nominating speech for George McGovern (Hubert Humphrey was ultimately nominated) to criticize Chicago police for tactics he described as ”Gestapo.”
In response, Chicago mayor Richard Daley shouted at him from the convention floor. Eyewitnesses said it sounded like “Get off the stage you fucking kike!” That was the bow on the package of the convention and the counterculture that drove me to the far left, where I remain to this day.
“I was a canvasser for Bobby Kennedy. I was one of the youngest, not quite 16. I spent a long, long day on June 5th, my second day working, visiting dozens of homes, sometimes treated kindly, sometimes rudely, mostly indifferently. Bobby Kennedy was a civil rights supporter and that didn’t always play well in my little home town in NC. But I believed in Bobby. I felt like he was giving us a chance to get back to the magic I’d felt about our country as an elementary school kid during his brother’s administration.
Bobby would bring back Camelot. A sadder but wiser Camelot to be sure – but Camelot.
I finally got home about 9 PM on the night of June 5th, bone tired but happy. I ate some dinner, talked to my parents about my adventures going door to door trying to convince Southern Democrats that Bobby Kennedy was right, and managed to stay awake through the 11 PM news. The news was good – Bobby won California and would only have to beat Humphrey in a Chicago showdown. I faded quickly and my mom woke me and told me to go to bed before Johnny Carson got through his opening monologue….
It was still dark outside when I felt my mom’s hand shaking my shoulder. “You need to get up,” she said and started out of my room.
“What’s going on?”
My mother hung her head. “Bobby Kennedy’s been shot,” she said softly and walked out.
I was out of bed at warp speed and parked in front of the TV in the den. There the flickering pictures proved my mom’s information true. Another Kennedy assassinated. Another senseless act of violence on a man who asked only for peace and justice for those less fortunate than himself .
For me, the “last, best hope” was gone.
(Originally appeared on Scholars and Rogues in 2007–read the full post here)
My life first intersected with politics in a way that I was aware of it my senior year of high school. On January 17, 1991, then President George Bush ordered the aerial bombardment of Iraq. I learned the attack had started when I got home from school to find my mother watching CNN. Before I’d gone to bed that night I had located a metal peace sign pin that I had, and I had decided to wear it every time I left the house until the Gulf War was over. I got a lot of odd looks from my classmates in high school, most of whom approved of the assault, when I showed up the next day wearing a peace sign. One friend went so far as to tell me that the idea of peace was obsolete, a statement I’m still not sure I understand. And I continued to wear the pin beyond the official end of the war in mid-February as a protest against what I felt (and continue to feel today) was a war over access to Kuwaiti oil.
My first “political” awareness? I don’t know how old I was. We were living in Walvis Bay at the time, then an exclave of South Africa, so I could have been about three. I was just being diagnosed with asthma and my health was touch-and-go for many years, which meant endless treks to the doctors. My father was a civil engineer and worked for what was then South African Harbours and Railways, a state-owned, heavily nationalised and nationalistic, entity and we lived in a house they supplied and went to clinics they ran.
I remember arriving at the doctors and we walked past three doors. The first said, “Nie-blankes alleenlik,” the second, “Privaat” and the third, “Blankes aleenlik.” This was the 1970s, the height of Apartheid South Africa. The first door led to the waiting rooms for non-whites, the second to the doctor’s office, and the third to the waiting room for white patients.
The confusion and anxiety that caused me – I’ve always had a very pressing sense of “fairness” – probably aggravated my asthma on every visit. It was also my first political experience even though, at the time, I knew nothing of politics. My grandmother was a Communist and my family had been founder members of the Friends of Russia Society (and met secretly in an uncle’s shop). That group went on to become the South African Communist Party. I, naturally and idealistically, became a communist. As I grew older and began to work in the informal settlements around South Africa, my political and economics understanding deepened and broadened. Just as naturally, I realised that there is no “one” solution and so idealism became less interesting and less all-consuming. Naturally, I stopped being an communist and became much more of a traditional liberal (one who believes in both social and economic liberty).
There are lots of political “moments” that I remember, but my first one was being about three and being led past a door that said, “Non-whites only.”
I cannot honestly point to a specific moment when I feel like I became politically aware per se, although there was an event in 1972 that I guess you’d call my political coming out. I’ll get to that in a second.
I was always unusual when it came to things like news. I was grabbing the morning paper and sitting down in the floor to read it by the time I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade, so I became at least tangentially aware of politics fairly early. (I’d scan the front page, then zip to the comics in back, then to the sports section, and finally back to the news proper.) I didn’t understand what was up with the ’68 Democratic Convention riots, for instance, but I was vaguely clued in that something was up. It seemed like there were riots somewhere all the time back then. By ’72 I was paying more active attention, and the centerpiece of that attention was the George Wallace candidacy. He was a hero in my house (sadly – at that point in time I hadn’t yet figured out that we were racists) and the assassination attempt was jarring. Wallace had been on a bit of a roll and we were convinced that he’d have won the White House if not for Arthur Bremer.
This was also the year of the fateful debutante moment I mention above. I don’t remember what got it started, but one day in my 5th grade class politics was being discussed and my teacher said something I didn’t like. So I smarted off about how she must be a Shirley Chisolm fan. Her head nearly exploded, and she came around the corner of her desk on two wheels, grabbed me by both ears and literally lifted me out of my desk and began screaming at me. It was, in every legal sense of the word, an assault, and if it happened today never being allowed to teach again is the best she could hope for. But this was the South in the ’70s. My grandfather moseyed down to have a word with the principal, but I assure you I was never told what I did was okay.
My family weren’t the only racists in town, turned out, and Mrs. Welch could put up with a lot of wiseassery, but associating her with one of them was, I see in retrospect, across the line.