On Election Day 1972, I hit the streets of the college town in Maryland where I was — in the loosest sense of the word — going to college, to help get out the vote for George McGovern. The polls were not — what’s the word? — encouraging, but deep in my heart I believed that we would overcome. I don’t think I was in denial — the way that President Bush is these days, shouting from podiums about how well things are going in Iraq — I was simply hopeful. And believe me, left to my own devices, hope is not my first response. But I had become part of a great movement pledged to the belief that we could stop an immoral war, that we could take care of our nation’s poor, that every person counted the same. I also just couldn’t believe that reasonable folks would pull the lever for Nixon. People had hated him since the ’40s. He was as repellent and stubborn as Bush is, although much smarter, and not as certain that he had crawled into God’s brain and was seeing the world through His eyes.
I was 18 years old. Maryland was beautiful in the fall, about to get cold, with a bit of snow, but in the meantime, the autumn leaves were still on the maples and dogwoods. The state was a bit of a challenge for a leftie from California — for instance, George Wallace had won the Democratic primary there. But everyone I knew loved McGovern. And I’d just read the second of two books that changed my life. The first was Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling,” which precipitated my stepping forward into a tentative faith. The second was “I and Thou,” by Martin Buber.
If you went to college in the ’70s, even as briefly as I did, you probably encountered “I and Thou.” But in case you didn’t, the book is a passionate call to cast off the standard way of the world, which is to see others in an I-It relationship. In the I-It stance, you related to others as members of categories, or as a chess player would, as objects to move about in a way that increases your sense of power. I am not going to name names, but I-It is the way that, say, hypothetically, fascists or oil companies might view ordinary citizens. But the I-Thou relationship meant you saw and respected each person, were committed to each person’s well-being. The word “Thou” is so intimate, and suggests holiness. It says, You are precious to me, and I am going to relate to you with that sense of preciousness. I-Thou is in play when parents first meet their babies, or when King David stopped seeing Bathsheba as a plaything, an It, and grieved with her when their baby died. I-Thou is the nurse at the Vietnam Memorial holding a dead soldier.
“I and Thou” propelled a few of us progressives to set up a McGovern desk in front of the student union building, even when the polls and my hangovers were so terrible. It helped me come to believe that the Democrats again were a party who, at the core, tried to respect and include and care for all people. I had been flirting with socialism for part of the previous year, but made a decision to come back to the fold because I was pretty sure that only the Democrats could make the nation better. “Pretty sure” is about as clear as my spiritual understanding gets, but as with electricity, you don’t need to understand it to use it.
I was pretty sure of a few things at 18: one, that there was some sort of God, an energy that gives life, that is life, that gives light, that is light. Two, that God was not allied with American foreign policy. Three, that the socialists hated the rich too much, while God cared for and connected with all human beings. I decided that I had to love and care directly for the poor, yet the rich had to be part of the Thou business, too.
So I decided to believe in the Democrats again. And I came to believe in the god of Martin Luther King, of Bobby Kennedy, of Rep. Shirley Chisholm.
I prayed to be of service.
Also, I smoked a shitload of dope.
I had a fluffy blond afro and huge green eyes and had gained about 20 pounds my first year because I had not yet discovered that the infirmary would sell you seven tabs of pharmaceutically pure Dexedrine for $1, which was very delicious when washed down with four or five cool refreshing beers. Some days I sat at my McGovern table with a serious hangover. Other days I was just wired with concern. I often went to the local Democratic headquarters and manned the phone banks, or helped mimeograph fliers to pass out at shopping centers.
Our hands were always stained with ink from the mimeograph machines, the crappy old-fashioned kind where you turned a roller with a crank. But you didn’t think about it, or even yourself all that much. You just wanted Nixon out so badly. The ink smelled like alcohol. I like that in an ink. Every day, we handed out fliers, identified our constituents, shook people’s hands at the market, and then shook them down for money.
Back then, before the Internet, you went to rallies, and to antiwar concerts, and to places where you could hand out your fliers. The rest of the time, you were on the phones, or on your feet. You fell in love with the people you were working with, and you drank a lot of beer and ate a lot of pizza and smoked pot and got laid. It was heaven. All that great work for peace and social justice and equality and women made you feel like you could chase down an airplane — like a miracle might just be getting itself knit together, somewhere offstage.
And so I honestly and truly believed on Election Day 1972, the polls notwithstanding, that if we could get out the vote, we would win. I knew it would be tough — I wasn’t stupid — but I truly thought we would triumph. I went out that day and knocked on doors, then I joined the phone bank and called McGovern supporters all afternoon. Then I ate pizza and had some beer and smoked some cigarettes and then, well … let’s see, what happened next? I believe the polls closed or something — yeah, yeah, that’s right, the polls closed. Now it’s coming back to me. “Hey, Massachusetts just in! Wow, great, Washington, D.C., too!”
Then, as more and more returns came in, we looked at each other with stunned disbelief — we’d lost New York? We’d lost California? This was my high-water mark of political desolation for 28 years, until Bush stole the 2000 election.
So why, you may ask, would I bring up that election as a way of exhorting you to give up everything that you possibly can for the next three weeks? Because I haven’t felt so much passion since 1972, so sure that our country is being run by an evil regime, made up of — with apologies to Martin Buber — truly despicable men. But this time, we are tied in the polls. Our lives and our children’s lives are on the line. This election is going to be won on the ground, by people like you. You with kids, you with the aged parent, you with no money to give, you with assignments due, you with the fancy job, you who hates negative campaigns. I admit, it’s a little more Us vs. Them, than I and Thou. But because the stakes have never been so high, what if, for the time being, we just split the difference. Let’s say, You and Me. Now.
Send me an e-mail and I’ll help you plug in.