Still voting, after all these years

Op-ed: "I got my politics at the dinner table, from my dad." A political coming of age story.

I was one of four kids in Mrs. Wells' class at Hamilton Elementary School No. 236 to cast my vote for Adlai Stevenson in our fourth-grade straw poll. Everyone but my three fellow Democrats and I wore "I Like Ike" buttons. Nobody wore a button that said "I Like Adlai." Although my grandmothers, both staunch Republicans, liked Ike, I did not. I especially did not like his running mate, Dick Nixon. But then, I got my politics at the dinner table, from my dad.

A union man back in the '30s when he worked at Bethlehem Steel, Dad voted for Stevenson even though he said the Illinois Democrat was an egghead.

At 16, I canvassed for a candidate for Baltimore City Council. I grew used to people listening politely for a minute, then smiling and indicating they had better things to do than talk to a high school girl about politics. Many doors were closed in my face.

The next year, I signed up to volunteer for Lyndon Johnson's presidential campaign. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, opined that "extremism in the defense of liberty was no vice." He scared the heck out of me. I was certain that we would have a short but mutually destructive nuclear war with the Soviet Union if Goldwater were elected. Johnson won by a landslide.

Soon, he sent more American troops to Vietnam. I opposed the war, the draft and LBJ's containment policy. A growing number of Americans were exhausted or outraged each time an American boy returned in a body bag from the jungles of Vietnam or when the president announced an escalation or when a kid I knew dropped out of college and was soon summoned before the draft board.

When LBJ announced that he would not seek re-election, I pinned my hopes on Bobby Kennedy, the charismatic senator from New York. He made fervent promises to end to the war and to confront poverty, racism and violence. But almost as soon as his campaign began to gather steam, he was assassinated, only two months after Martin Luther King was cut down by an assassin's bullet in Memphis.

Eugene McCarthy, the Farm-Labor-Democratic senator from Minnesota, was my only viable choice. I turned 21 in May, now eligible to vote, and the general election was only six months away. Some college kids got clean for Gene: Boys cut their hair and shaved their scraggly beards, donned coats and ties; girls pulled back their long hair or pinned it up, traded their miniskirts and hippie dresses for more conservative outfits and canvassed for McCarthy.

The Democratic convention in Chicago brought street demonstrations, shouting, police beatings and arrests of anti-war protesters outside the convention hall. Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey was nominated. He did not then repudiate his president's Vietnam policies.

On Election Day, I walked to my polling place, the lobby of an apartment building. Outside, picketers walked back and forth, shouting, "Vote with your feet! Vote in the streets." I walked up the steps to do the thing I had waited to do since I was a child — what I saw my parents do every election, no matter how conflicted they felt about the choices.

It was an old fashioned setup, a 1940s-era voting machine with dusty blue curtains that closed with a loud snap when I pulled them shut. I stood there for a moment, overwhelmed by the ticket, so many names. And there at the top, two choices: Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon.

For the minor offices, I voted— as my father always did — the straight Democratic ticket.

Then I waited, as if paralyzed.

I had two choices: I could pull the lever to seal my votes without voting for president. Or I could pull the level for Hubert Horatio Humphrey, with whom I had many, many serious disagreements, but principally, over Vietnam.

I voted for Humphrey.

It was the first of many elections where I've had to choose the lesser of two evils. This primary season portends a difficult choice, and those who fight the inclination to stay home on Nov. 8 will face the classic realpolitik quandary.

But I'm still voting.

Lynne Spigelmire Viti teaches at Wellesley College. Email, lviti@wellesley.edu.

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