In 1972, at the age of 15, I got the notion to Get Involved. Volunteer. Be Useful. See the world.
Traveling or joining the circus not being options, I walked into the local Republican Headquarters one day after school and volunteered to help out with the upcoming election.
Dad was a Democrat; Mom a Republican. They never fought about politics. The only political talk in our house was their election-day joking about canceling each other's votes yet again. To me, both parties were the same.
I wasn’t a Republican or a Democrat. I knew nothing about politics. If Democratic Headquarters had been on my route, I would have walked in there just as readily. I just wanted to see what an election was like on a grassroots level. I was bored.
The local Republicans were more than happy to have a new Nixon Youth to kick around. They gave me a nearby neighborhood to canvass, a process that involved taking typewritten sheets of registered Republican addresses, knocking on doors, and finding out who intended to vote for Nixon in the upcoming election. On election day I would go back to the houses of avowed supporters and urge them to get out and vote. I was not required to know anything about Nixon, his policies, or his history, so I was fully qualified.
I was also a champion door-knocker from past campaigns of my own. As an enterprising five-year-old I’d gone door-to-door regaling neighbors with my Invisible Penny magic trick. Holding an empty brown paper bag, I’d toss the invisible penny in the air and then “catch” it neatly in the paper bag, snapping my fingers on the rim of the bag signifying the penny had landed. A few kind souls gave me candy. Others gave me pitying looks or a slammed door. One neighbor gave me a real penny and told me to go away. Back then, someone was almost always home in the middle of the day, so the chances of a positive encounter or two were pretty high, or at least high enough to keep me willing to endure public humiliation for a possible snack (see: Deprived Childhood).
So, knocking on doors and talking to strangers felt like a good boredom-killer to me. I started near my own neighborhood and knocked on my first door. There was a long pause before a hunch-backed senior citizen slowly creaked the door open and smiled gently at me. “Yes, dear?” It occurred to me there was potential for candy in this venture, perhaps those little butterscotch drops the elderly were so fond of.
I explained that I was from the Campaign to Re-Elect the President, and……
“Nixon?” she asked, rather more loudly and testily than her initial friendly hello.
Thinking she was perhaps a bit hard of hearing, I spoke up clearly. “Yes, Ma’am, President Nixon,” I assured her, and went on to ask if she intended on voting for the President in November.
“Nixon!” she screeched. I thought she might spit. “Nixon?” I involuntarily took a couple of steps back. “I’d vote for a goat before I’d vote for that murderer!” She swung the door closed with all the fury her puny little arm could muster, and I continued backing down her driveway, very fast, feeling as suddenly culpable as if I was stumping for Hitler Youth.
Thus initiated to the rigors of the campaign trail, I marched on through the following weeks. While that remained my most dramatic canvassing encounter, it did make me a bit curious as to what the man had done to rile her up so thoroughly. At the end of the day I read through the campaign pamphlets I’d been given, and frankly, the man’s record as a dedicated public servant sounded pretty solid to me.
A few uneventful canvassing sessions later my boyfriend accompanied me. Jim was a member of the debating team and thought himself a pretty smart talker. Early on in our rounds we encountered a young man of about 25 who listened to my brief spiel, rubbing his eyes wearily. When I tried to hand him a pamphlet he sadly said, “You seem like a couple of intelligent young people. What are you doing campaigning for Nixon?” Jim jumped in with the rote laundry-list of Nixon accomplishments he’d memorized from our pamphlets, and the man proceeded to counter every one of our claims with some very interesting claims of his own (I reminded myself to look up the word genocide when I got back home). I stood aside and listened carefully, then listened more carefully as he went on to describe what George McGovern’s campaign was based on.
The problem was, McGovern sounded like a much more reasonable and idealistic candidate to me. I wondered how shallow and fickle this sudden change of heart made me.
By election day, which fell on my 16th birthday, I’d turned Democrat. But I still gamely followed through with my get-out-the-vote duties until darkness fell.
Months later I would see a fading bumper sticker that summed up my new understanding of the campaign: