I was the guy with the Carter button, a big, round green one I wore every day, but the jocks who cornered my friend by the lockers in the halls of our high school never got around to beating the shit out of me. The closest I came to underage martyrdom, in fact, was the occasional smirk or disgusted "Sheesh" between classes.
In 1976, Arlington High School, nestled in a well-to-do suburb between Dallas and Ft. Worth, was one of the beating hearts of Ford country. You could look down any given street and see two neat rows of "Ford for President" signs on either side, neatly dotting each lawn. A few of the fire hydrants were still painted red, white and blue. 1976, remember, was America's Bicentennial Year, and damn it all, I was still too young to vote.
I grew up loving election years. In 1972, my best friend and I (in junior high, you still had a "best friend") would wolf down lunch so we could go out into the courtyard and spend the rest of the hour "debatting." We'd earnestly circle the cement garden arguing the merits of our heroes and we drew a crowd every single day. My friend would hit me with the latest wildass thing McGovern had said, and I'd shoot back with a warning that there was more to this whole Watergate thing than Nixon was letting on, mark my words.
1968 is the earliest election year I can remember. At the corner store in our Long Island neighborhood, you could buy lollipops with food-coloring imprints of the candidates' faces, red ones for Humphrey, blue ones for Nixon. I thought it was outrageously unfair that the blues ones tasted a helluva lot better.
Election nights at our house were like Oscar nights. We popped popcorn and got to stay up late, watching each state turn blue or red, tracking electoral votes with a handy cut-out from the newspaper, just like the lists of nominees for Best Actress or Best Picture.
I like to think I've always been a political junkie, but in truth, I've always been a media junkie. Flipping channels, I'd get kick out of seeing which network would announce which state had gone to which column first, and then, whether or not the anchorman would betray his pleasure or distaste, right there, on the air, in front of millions.
By 1980, I was finally old enough to vote. I could list the promises I damn well remember Jimmy Carter making in 1976, promises that were never seen through, but nevermind. 1980 was a busy year, rallying for Ted Kennedy, a real Democrat, dammit, and then, feeling my heart sink as he bumbled the nomination away, and finally, facing up to the reality of our Janus-faced one-party system.
1980. Another friend running up to me on Guadalupe Street in Austin, literally bug-eyed and sweating. "It's Reagan," he pants. We grab each other's shirts. It's too early. Not even dark yet. But one network or another is announcing a winner, a nightmare. We high-tail it back to my apartment where we can watch the returns on my tiny black-n-white.
Carter couldn't have made it. I like to think that my first vote ever wasn't cast in vain. Sure, who remembers John Anderson. But it was a vote for real change, not the sort of cellophaned "Change" marketed in 1992. It was a vote for hope.
Perot, of course, I ignored, but this time around we had a third party candidate whose agenda I could get behind. Naturally, I've worried that Ralph Nader would throw the election to Bush, but fortunately, though I live an ocean away, I'm registered in Texas. Fortunately, in other words, I was free this time around to vote my conscience.