Why I’m voting for Obama: part 1

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I am two months younger than Barack Obama.  I grew up in a Chicago suburb called Crystal Lake.

Whenever I asked my parents why they chose to live and raise their children in Crystal Lake, out of all the other possible bedroom communities, towns like Lake Forest and Dundee and Barrington and Woodstock, the answer was always the same: because of the schools.

It was the mid-1960s.  When you’re a child, you don’t know anything about current events.  I couldn’t have picked Lyndon Johnson out of a lineup.  I didn’t know there was a war in Vietnam until it was almost over, and I never heard a whisper about the assassinations of Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy.

I voted for my first president in 1968.  I was seven and in second grade.  We had a class election, with a little voting booth and everything.  I didn’t know anything about either candidate, so I voted for the guy I had heard of: Richard Nixon, who I had heard my father talking about at some point.  To this day, I clearly remember sitting on the front lawn of the school, waiting for the bus to come, when they announced on the loudspeaker that Nixon had won the school-wide election.  I remember cheering, not because I had any idea who Nixon was, but because I had somehow “guessed right.”  When it was announced later that night that Nixon had also won the national election, it felt anti-climactic.

I say, my parents always told me that they picked Crystal Lake to live in because of the schools.  And if there is one thing that sticks out in my mind about my education, it was the emphasis on fairness and equality, tolerance and consideration, and, most of all, a vigorous denunciation of racism.  I was told, from a very early age, that black people are every bit as good as white people and that I shouldn’t let anyone tell me different.  I was told this over and over again by my teachers.  They made us read Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.  They took us to a real movie theater to see Sounder, and Roots was a school-wide event that touched every subject from Social Studies to gym.  By the time I graduated high school, I was like, “Okay, okay, I get it, black people are just as good as white people, fine, if I ever meet one I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”

Because, of course, there were no black people in Crystal Lake.  I was as likely to see a black man in Crystal Lake than I was likely to see the Loch Ness Monster.

It’s obvious to me now what was going on, but back then everything was weird and mysterious.  Why, I wondered, did they keep hammering away at this perfectly obvious, perfectly acceptable truth?  What was their problem?

Their problem, of course, was that the US was, at the time, embroiled in a massive civil-rights battle, one that culminated in the assassination of Martin Luther King.  The people who ran the schools of Crystal Lake probably considered themselves righteous and embattled, stemming a tide of hatred and discord in our little white middle-class suburb.  They probably saw themselves as beacons of liberty and equality, combating limitless messages of racism and intolerance they were sure were scarring my still-developing mind.

Not without reason.  I remember once, at eight or so, playing on a playground at an exclusive country club, and a little boy near me picked a penny up off the ground.  The little boy’s mother slapped the coin out of his hand and said “Don’t pick that up off the ground, a nigger could have touched it!”  This was not in Birmingham or Jackson, this was in Crystal Lake – hell, this was in a country club in Crystal Lake – the mother’s outburst was not only contrary to everything I’d been taught up to that point, it was completely irrational – there could not have been a black person, of any class ranking, for sixty miles around.  There were the typical sort of racist jokes and stories passed around as social currency, and the lone Greek boy in my fourth-grade class was endlessly teased for the color of his skin.

And not even my revered school system was immune.  I remember one eighth-grade social-studies teacher – a social studies teacher! – openly sneering, in class, about Iron Eyes Cody, the “Indian” used in the famous environmental ads of the mid-70s.  This enlightened soul instructed his students that American Indians (as they were known then) were no environmentalists, not any kind of spiritualists, or members of any decent kind of society at all.  Rather, he informed us that Indians were lazy, uneducated slobs concerned solely with getting drunk.  “Fire water!  Fire water!” this teacher exclaimed, staggering around the room in an exaggerated parody of Indian inebriation.  An English teacher in high school, in between teaching us The Old Man and the Sea and Slaughterhouse-Five, took time out to warn us, in dire terms, that “the blacks” had already moved into several outlying Chicago suburbs, and that, in ten years time, “they’ll be here too, just you watch,” as if they were, literally, a plague sweeping outward from the urban epicenter.

For my second presidential election, in 1972, I was 11 years old and in fifth [no, wait, sixth — thanks, felixbunae] grade.  Everyone – everyone – voted for Nixon.  There was only one boy in my class who voted for McGovern, a strange, quietly humorous boy with long blond hair and a habit of wearing turtlenecks.  This oddball’s name was Ivan – Ivan! – and his father was a psychiatrist and his mother was an artist, and he lived on a sheep farm out of town, a strange estate that had a Buddhist temple gate over the entrance to the pastureland.  Ivan, who was known as the “brainy” kid, smilingly took all kinds of abuse from his classmates and patiently explained why McGovern’s policies were better than Nixon’s (he was also an avowed communist, if his name wasn’t clue enough to his parents’ political leanings).  The fact that, at 11, he actually was familiar with the candidates’ respective policies branded him as a hopeless egghead among us Nixonians.  Secretly I admired Ivan, because he could patiently and elegantly explain to me buzzwords that people threw around like brickbats in 1972 – not just “communism” but also “abortion” and “feminism” and “Viet Cong” and “the domino theory,” but publicly I ridiculed him for being ridiculously out of step with popular opinion.

(Five seconds at Google has shown me that Ivan has become a renowned children’s neurologist in Nebraska.  I am not in the least surprised.)

Watergate was the defining moment of my adolescence.  I followed every twist and turn of the investigation, I raced home to watch the hearings on television, I listened to my father bitch and pontificate about who was a fool and who was a wise man.  Imagine!  Twelve years old, and obsessed with Watergate!  I knew all about Jeb Magruder and John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman and the E. Howard Hunt and the Saturday Night Massacre.  Are there twelve-year-olds out there today who are following the story of the Wall Street bailout, the war in Iraq, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib?  Every week I’d rush to the library and look through all the weekly magazines, trying to get a handle on a political crisis that was tearing the nation apart.

I came away from Watergate a sadder but wiser young man – I had seen a president resign in disgrace, but I still felt in my heart that Nixon was an intelligent, complex man who had gotten caught up in something bigger and more powerful than himself.  (My father, the reader may wish to know, thought the Watergate scandal was nothing more than a sophisticated hit job and sent Nixon a telegram of condolence on the day he resigned – I’m sure it was greatly appreciated.)  I thought Gerald Ford, too, was an honest, decent man, a straight-shouldered public servant perhaps in a little over his head, and I wasn’t angry when he pardoned Nixon, I thought he was cauterizing the wound that was threatening to bleed the nation to death.

Ford, I felt, was doomed from the start.  It seemed to me that the Democrats could have run a turnip in 1976 and still won.  And while I thought Jimmy Carter was more qualified for the presidency than a turnip, I didn’t particularly like him.  I didn’t buy his aw-shucks peanut-farmer shtick and I thought his brother Billy was a national embarrassment.  But, as with Ford, it seemed to me that Carter was a decent man, an honest man, who was unable, for reasons pertaining to that same honesty and decency, to make a very effective president.free stats

Maybe I was just young and naïve, but I believed what I had been taught, that the presidency was a great and powerful office and the men who held that office were deserving of our respect and admiration.  Nixon may have resigned in disgrace, but he still went to China, and he still got a freakin’ man on the moon.  Try to imagine George W. Bush putting a man on the moon!

Next: Ronald Reagan becomes president and tries to kill me.


29 Responses to “Why I’m voting for Obama: part 1”
  1. stormwyvern says:

    “…Roots was a school-wide event that touched every subject from Social Studies to gym.”

    Do I even want to know how “Roots” could be applied to gym class or was that a bit of artistic license on your part?

    “Next: Ronald Reagan becomes president and tries to kill me.”

    I do not think I have ever read, seen, heard, or experienced in any way a more compelling teaser. Bravo, sir.

    This is quite interesting and I’m looking forward to part two.

    • quitwriting says:

      Ditto the part-two thing. I’m genuinely curious.

      • capthek says:

        this and this.

        I was also very political as a child, but I was born in 1971 and my memory begins in the late 1970s as my mother worked to reelect Carter and I remember her selling suckers that said “Reaganomics sucks, get in your licks”. I am sad she died during Bush’s time, and just before the democrats she so loved took back the house and senate in 2006.

        A bit of a difference between you and me I think, when I grew up and reevaluated my political leanings, I went even farther left than good old mom.

  2. misterseth says:

    Nice article. Being born in 1967, I knew nothing of Nixon and his administration growing up. To me, he was that scary man on TV. Having grown up having a greater understanding of Nixon and his policies, I honestly haven’t changed my view.
    I can’t say that I hate him, just that from my perspective, he seemed out of touch with the American people. Perhaps a better description would be ‘he was a man, who at another time, would have been a powerful emperor. He could have been anything, but the leader of a democracy.’

  3. Todd,

    I believe you and I are the same age (I was born in May of ’61). My parents moved to the suburbs when I was four probably for the schools as well (we were in a city-school district before we moved) and I too didn’t have many people of different colors around me as I grew up.

    I remember though that along with the schools constantly teaching us that all races were equal, I believed I learned just as much from my parents and entertainment media. TV shows like “All In the Family” movies like “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” (that I recall seeing when I was 6 or 7 with my family at the drive-in!) were influential.

    Oddly enough, an old issue of the Fantastic Four (#119 to be exact) I recall to this day taught me about the stipidity of racial bigotry. Sure, looking at it today it’s pretty heavy-handed, but to this 12 year old it opened my eyes.

    Your 1972 school election made me laugh. We had one too and I recall that only two people in the entire school voted for McGovern. A friend of mine and me! My father was a steel worker and our house hold was very much a Democratic home. I remember when the school election results came out nearly all my classmates were stunned that I didn’t vote for Nixon. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t vote for him — since we both had the same first name (Richard)!

    • Todd says:

      All in the Family was, of course, a staple of my family’s TV watching. The genius of the show was that Archie Bunker, especially as he was played in that wonderfully detailed performance by Carrol O’Connor, could be seen simultaneously as a buffoon and a victim — he was an idiot, but constantly under attack. So a liberal could laugh at him (but cringe at meathead Mike, who was a classic holier-than-thou progressive) but a conservative could feel like Bunker spoke for his sense of being persecuted.

  4. laminator_x says:

    Your experience with Watergate parallels mine with Iran-Contra. I was born a month after Nixon resigned. Years later, I spent a grade-school summer break glued to the Senate hearings. Most memorable moments: North’s whining about how Senators couldn’t imagine hard he had it, Inowe showing up the next day wearing his Medal of Honor and burning a hole through North with his eyes, and North inadvertently outing the NSA in open session. It was telling to see the Senators reacting to the NSA revelation. Some had poker-faces, some looked upset, and some were like “Wait, the what agency?”

  5. popebuck1 says:

    Nixon resigned a week after my sixth birthday, and I remember my mom and dad calling me into the living room to see his resignation speech – because history was being made, and they wanted me to see it. That’s my first political memory (besides “Nixon” being used as a dirty word in our household).

  6. felixbunay says:

    Yet another ’61er, but I followed the 1968 election very closely, and the RFK assassination broke my tiny heart.

    I second-grade voted for Humphrey, and he won Miss McCarthy’s class by a landslide over Nixon, 13 to 5 (plus two for George Wallace, in Michigan, sheesh).

    In ’72 I gave a speech at our sixth-grade ‘convention’ for George McGovern, very anti-Vietnam War; I watched a lot of Cronkite in those days. My powers of persuasion were lacking, clearly, as Nixon buried McGovern 69-10 (all three classes voting).

    Just curious – your were in 2nd Grade in 1968 and 5th grade in 1972? A spring election vote, or a repeated grade? 🙂

    • Todd says:

      No, just my faulty memory. Yes, obviously I was in sixth grade — I was conflating memories of the election with memories of the shaggy-haired communist boy, who I’m guessing told me about McGovern in the spring, even though the election wasn’t until the fall. Thanks for pointing that out.

  7. johnnycrulez says:

    This is really interesting. Learning about you as well as your views.

  8. clayfoot says:

    I would like to petition to have George Bush be the next person sent to the moon. One way.

  9. craigjclark says:

    I remember voting in my first presidential election, too. I was in the second grade when the 1980 election came to pass and, like you, I voted for the guy I had heard of — in my case, Jimmy Carter. I was disappointed when he didn’t actually win, which may have fueled my political apathy for the next decade or so.

    • yetra says:

      My first political memory is of watching the 1980 election results as a 7 year old in sonoma county, in a household of hippy/swinger liberals, and the shock and dismay at Jimmy Carter’s loss. Started me off on political idealism for the next decade or so (forming groups called Youth for Peace in high school, majoring in politics at UCSC), until I finally hit my apathy stage in my early 20s.

      God I hope we have a good election results night this year. It’s about fucking time.

  10. ndgmtlcd says:

    Nixon put a man on the Moon? He would have stopped the launches if he could have gotten the money back. Nixon gutted NASA! He hated everything the Kennedy clan had started. But you know that now.

    You were really living in a strange, isolated, made-up world. Up to now I had no idea that it existed.

  11. The first one I remember was Bush-Dukakis. I was, if I’m doing the math correctly, 11, and knew nothing of Bush, even less of Dukakis. But I knew who Bush was, so he was my guy.

    Looking back, was Dukakis really that bad? He seems alright by my standards today. Maybe not presidential material, but no less or more so than Bush the first.

    I do remember that Dukakis riding around in the tank was a source of derision, however.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Great post, seriously.

    Joshua James

  13. noskilz says:

    The first installment is nifty, but it’s the second I’m really curious about.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I totally relate to your political development, although I grew up in a much more diverse town than Crystal Lake, with a lot of contact with all kinds of people (except WASPs — I didn’t even know they existed outside of satire and the New York Times wedding section, which I treated as satire).

    I was the only one in my family who was for Nixon in 1968. I liked him because he had an “x” in his name. My first disillusionment came when I wrote him a letter (on Raggedy Ann stationery) to advocate a law to protect women’s rights to equal wages and employment conditions, and some underling in his office wrote back telling me to take it up with my state legislature. At 6, I was pretty ticked off.

    Then came Watergate. I hadn’t even turned 9, and I became obsessed. I remembering telling the third grade that it was clear the president was involved in a cover-up — this was 1972-73. I was shocked by his landslide reelection. By 1974, I was reading three newspapers a day. I couldn’t wait for school to let out so I could watch the hearings on TV and was furious when my parents made me go to camp in Maine instead of letting me stay home to watch the president get impeached.

    So I admire the maturity of your response to Nixon.

    Not one president in my lifetime has earned my real admiration, nor even much respect. That’s one change I’m hoping for now.


  15. teamwak says:

    Excellent stuff!

    We wish Obama well from over here. I’ve never known a foreign election have so much coverage over here. But I think we all know the world is at a crossroads and we;re waiting to see which road we are gong to be going down.

    McCaina and Palins recent tub-thumping sessions with local nutjobs leave a nasty taste in the mouth. Fingers crossed that Obama makes it in.

    I just fear a final, super dirty push to the finish from McCains camp, and worry that the easily swayed floating voters will fall for this crap.


  16. chatoyant_1 says:

    Great first part, thanks!
    And it has that ability to draw on particular and yet somewhat common childhood generational (born ’57) touchstones. I was in Iowa public schools, recall something about our class Presidential elections, with the Nixon-heavy turnout not really jiving with the television-entertainment music icons – even the Monkees had an anti-war stance… But my next year was in a school under the auspices of the university, which was utopia. Focused, smaller, mixed classes, ethnicity found in both teachers and students, a fairly hip student body, engagement with topics and issues – words like “moratorium”. But then families move, and by the time Watergate arrived I had wound up experiencing the exciting public education of Maryland, with crash courses in racism and political scandals galore.

    Looking back, whatever the chronological- truth, I don’t connect the vaulted-ambitions of a moon-landing with Nixon’s legacy. But I am curious about Reagan’s attempt on your life. Although THAT kind of thing seems more Watergate-era Nixon.

    • Anonymous says:

      only to add – I am surprised I don’t recall the 1968 election campaign commercials on tv (all on view here http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1968) but they are astounding to watch now. Republican Nixon’s with abstract electronic-synth soundtracks combined with ominous Dragnet-sounding texts about “bringing order”, the Democrats just have one with soundtrack of people laughing, and a television with “Agnew for Vice-President?” on it…Long time ago.

    • Anonymous says:


      We’re about the same age. One thing I remember vividly during Watergate was that in my Sotuh Florida middle school they rolled televisions into the classrooms and showed the hearings. That seems amazing to me now, but then, hey, just one more day in the ’70’s! One other thing, do you remember a couple of years later when everyone was groaning about the networks airing yet another Watergate inspired mini-series? Those minis (& books from the Watergate figures)were everywhere.

      – Bob

  17. teamwak says:

    Thought you might find this funny.
    Obama Pictures and McCain Pictures
    see Sarah Palin pictures