I began writing a story a while back depicting the real circumstances leading to my conversion from an anti-gay social conservative and paid propagandist for the National Organization for Marriage, to the current supporter and advocate for gay and lesbian equality I am today. I allowed portions of this story to be published for a short time a while back, before reconsidering. Since then, the story has remained largely untold. I would like to release this story and if this community is interested in reading it, I'll publish the rest of it in a series.
Ten months before the 2004 Presidential Election at the youthful age of seventeen and still not even a high school graduate, I jumped on a midnight train out of Depew, New York bound for a small town in south central Iowa called Osceola, which I would later learn was named in honor of a 19th century Seminole tribal leader. It wasn’t my first time on a train – that I had done many times before with my grandfather, Robert, when he took me to Albany and New York City with him on business trips. He was an attorney member of the State Labor Board appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo. I was just a small kid at the time but to this day I remember playing Rummy with him – back then we called him ‘Grandpa King’ – to pass the time on the train, chasing pigeons in Battery Park, going to see Cats on Broadway, looking up at the Brooklyn Bridge from his office window and out at the world from atop the World Trade Center. That night however, was the first time I would set out on a train on my own. My mother, Karen, took me to the station and even though the train was delayed by several hours, she waited with me there until I boarded shortly after five o’clock in the morning.
Iowa. Not a major tourist destination – especially in January. Unless you’re from there, the first things you think of when it comes to that state are its rows and rows of corn. If you’re into college football maybe you think of the Iowa Hawkeyes but if you’re into politics like I was, you think of the all-important, first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. And those caucuses are what brought me to Iowa that year. The upcoming election was the first I could vote in and I was excited to have a youthful, charismatic candidate in John Edwards to vote for when the time came even though my AP U.S. History teacher, Mr. Barnum, said Edwards had no chance of winning the nomination. Of course, that was back in November of 2003, before his eventual surge in the polls and my trip to the Hawkeye State to volunteer for his campaign.
Edwards reminded me of John F. Kennedy – my childhood hero, and I took on his name in high school since everyone there thought I was obsessed with him. Perhaps it was true – not only did I dress up as Kennedy for Halloween earlier that year, but I memorized several of his speeches – including his entire inaugural address, running just under fourteen minutes. Not only could I recite the words, but I had a pretty good handle on his accent and speech tempo. In other words, when he paused for applause, I paused. When he stressed a word, I stressed it. That same Halloween, my best friend Eric dressed up as Bill Clinton, his favorite president. Together, the two of us walked the streets waving and shaking people’s hands. After all, Clinton met Kennedy as a teenager representing his home state of Arkansas at Boys Nation. For Eric and I, both history buffs and political cats in our teens, it was fun to put those two back together now that they had both been Presidents of the United States.
One day around that same time, I was caught at the amusement of my classmates by my Language Arts teacher, Mr. Szymczak, discreetly reading an assassination conspiracy book while my classmates were taking turns, paragraph by paragraph, reading "Great Expectations" out loud. I never had any interest in any of the high school language arts curriculum and was too consumed by Kennedy to pay it any attention. It was only slightly embarrassing when the class giggled as Mr. Szymczak approached from behind my desk, lifted my book from my hands and turned it over to see its title. He didn't say a word and I never knew what he thought of it – a fifteen year old high school boy and his Kennedy conspiracy book – for he returned the book to me after the class. I guess I like to imagine that he was pleasantly surprised to discover my reading choice was what it was as opposed to some trivial science fiction story. Or perhaps he was an admirer of the late President himself and let it slide without much ado.
I also made a pilgrimage to Dallas with my mother that same year on the thirty-ninth anniversary of his assassination. We visited the sixth floor of that book depository, now The Sixth Floor Muesum at Dealy Plaza, where according to the Warren Report, Lee Harvey Oswald took aim at the president. We peered down on Elm Street from behind the fence at the infamous grassy knoll, where many - myself included - believed there was a second gunman. Then, with a heavy heart, I scanned Dealey Plaza from atop the same concrete pedestal where Abraham Zapruder shot that iconic home video. To this day, I have never felt as small and helpless in my life as I did when I stood on that white mark on Elm Street exactly where the president was when they shot him. I still remember the light breeze of that sunny November afternoon just two months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It felt as if I was fixed in that spot and time and the world around me pushed forward by that gentle breeze. I was right there – exactly where he was thirty-nine years ago. To occupy the very same physical space at the exact same time, on the same day as he did thirty-nine years ago was a truly surreal experience. I felt as if I could reach out into this other dimension of time and, even though it might make me sound crazy, save him. But just as soon as I could think of reaching out in 2001, that moment had already passed thirty-nine years ago and the echo of that World War II rifle filled the plaza, and the president was shot and his motorcade was speeding away under that triple underpass.
It was a trip I will never forget and to my great pleasure, it will forever be recorded in history, for our visit caught the attention of Selwyn Crawford, a local staff writer for the Dallas Morning News covering the annual memorial ceremony. He interviewed us and wrote an article about my pilgrimage which he published in the paper the next day on the front page of the Metro Section. It was the first time I had ever been written about in a newspaper.
“Fifteen-year-old Louis Marinelli of Tonawanda, N.Y., convinced his mom that they had to come to Dallas for Thanksgiving this year, but not so they could visit family or friends. They don’t have any here. Not even to see the Cowboys play, although they planned to do that, too. Instead, young Louis wanted to visit the site where President John F. Kennedy was slain.”From that perspective, I proudly imagined myself fifty years in the future looking back at the time I voted for John Edwards in 2004 the same way my grandfather proudly looks back at when he voted for Kennedy in 1960. John Edwards was the candidate of hope and change that year – a theme that ultimately did not win him the Democratic nomination but would work well for a man named Barack Obama four years later. Edwards ran a positive campaign about bringing people together and was a middle-of-the-road candidate. He championed many of the traditional Democratic Party pillars but also took stances many people today would consider unbecoming of a Democrat – especially in today’s polarized political climate. At the same time I was captivated – as so many other Edwards supporters were – by the possibility that “the son of a mill worker could beat the son of a president for the White House.” He was the embodiment of the American dream and gave hope to those of us who grew up in small towns and that is part of what drew me to him.
I wish I could find the words to describe what it feels like to be in a room with hundreds of people who share a common admiration of a man you traveled half way across the country to help become president. I suppose it is my responsibility as the author of this story to provide you with those words but I tell you: no words could give that experience any justice. Anticipation, excitement, wonder. Elizabeth Edwards. Mellencamp’s “Small Town”. John Edwards enters through a crowd full of people reaching out to him. It brought tears to my eyes just as it does this very moment as I write about it a decade later. Sometimes I put on my headphones and play that song. I close my eyes and return to that night.
“I came here a year ago,” Edwards says in his southern accent. “With a belief we that could change this country. With a belief that the politics of what was possible – the politics of hope – could overcome the politics of cynicism. I have been all over the State of Iowa – I have been on Main Streets and Cafés, in people’s homes… the people of Iowa tonight… confirmed that they believe in a positive, uplifting vision to change America… and not only that… tonight we started a movement to change this country that will sweep across America!”
“You know,” he continues with my favorite part. “We still live in a country where in so many ways there are two separate Americas: one for those in positions of privilege and one for everybody else – doesn't have to be that way. We have two health care systems: one for those who can afford the best healthcare money can buy; one for everybody else rationed out by insurance companies and HMO’s – it doesn't have to be that way. We have two public school systems: one for those who live in the most affluent communities; one for everybody else. We have two tax systems: one for those who have lawyers and accountants that can take care of every tax loophole and every tax advantage that comes down the pipe; and then one for everybody else – folks who just work hard every single day and pay their taxes. We have two economies in America: one for all those families who have everything they need, security, their kids, their grand kids are all going to be OK and they know it; and then one for all those families who work paycheck to paycheck. They save nothing; they go into debt; they struggle every single day to build a better life for themselves and their families.”
“We also have 35 million Americans who every single day live in poverty in America – we, and I know politicians don’t talk about this much – the reason is these folks usually don’t vote, they don’t come up high in polls. We should talk about lifting these Americans out of poverty because it is wrong to have thirty-five million people living in our country living in poverty every single day. Not in the America you and I are going to build together!”
“We have a moral responsibility to lift these families out of poverty. We have children in a country of our wealth going to bed hungry. We have children who don’t have the clothes that keep them warm. We have millions of Americans who are working hard every single day for minimum wage living in poverty. In the America you and I will build together we will say ‘no’ to kids going to bed hungry; ‘no’ to kids who don’t have clothes to keep them warm and ‘no’ forever to any American working full time and living in poverty. Not in our America! Not in our America!”
It was the proudest moment of my life at least until later that night – the night of the caucuses and the fateful ‘Dean Scream’ on January 19, 2004. It was my sister's birthday but I was celebrating something else. After spending the evening representing the Edwards camp in the small town of Newton, and even though we had to break a few traffic laws to do it, we arrived at the campaign headquarters in Des Moines in time. Edwards was going to be there after he catapulted to a close second place finish that night behind John Kerry. Thus, we earned him the ‘performed better than expected’ ticket out of Iowa and he was coming to show his appreciation for our hard work. I patiently, yet anxiously, waited for the Senator as he made his way through the line of bustling volunteers. Nervous that I might miss him, I had to reposition myself several times. Many of us were personally meeting him for the first time that night and when it was finally my chance, I shook his hand, congratulated him and asked for an autograph on a campaign yard sign - the first thing I could find laying around. And then he was gone.
At the end of the night, I took my autographed yard sign, scooped up a handful of confetti from the ground, sealed it in a zip lock bag and packed my things to go home. My job in Iowa was done and although many of the volunteers were arranging last minute travel to New Hampshire to continue the campaign, and even though I desperately wanted to go with them, I had to go back home. I was graduating the following week and the Vice Principal asked me to address my classmates and those in attendance for the early graduation ceremony. I had a good time in Iowa and was so delighted by my experience there that by the time I left I was set on returning. I loved the evenings I spent on the phone calling registered voters to have a conversation with each and every one of them about my candidate – his views on the war in Iraq, health care and same-sex marriage. I loved the hours I spent knocking on doors and was thoroughly impressed by the hospitality the people of Iowa afforded me and the volunteers I worked with. I’ll never forget how they welcomed us into their homes, served us coffee, tea and cookies and gave us a chance to have a conversation with them about John Edwards. They let us lay out our case even though some of them knew as they opened their doors to us that there was nothing we could say that would change their minds. The Howard Dean supporters were the most die-hard but I imagine most of them really just felt good about us visiting them. It made them feel important. It reminded them of the importance of that election and their vote. Even though some people hung up or shut their doors on us, sick of the phone calls and television commercials from all the campaigns, I suspect that for most of the Iowans we called or came across, it gave them hope about the future of our country and that is exactly what John Edwards gave to me.
A few months later when the voters of the Democratic Party nominated Massachusetts liberal John Kerry instead, I felt the Democratic Party was no longer the place for me. That became especially apparent throughout the course of the general election. Much of the left’s anti-war, anti-Bush rhetoric was beyond the pale and John Kerry was the flip-flopper in chief. There was no honor and he was not noble. Kerry, aside from his letter initials and home state, had little in common with the likes of John Kennedy. Remember: he actually voted for the 87 billion dollars for Iraq before he voted against it. He represented exactly why long-serving senators have trouble making it to the White House. Over the course of their political careers in the Senate, they develop a conflicting voting record and attempt to explain their votes in abstruse legalese only their colleagues in the Senate can understand.
Over the past fifty years, Americans have generally elevated governors to the presidency: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter were all governors before being elected president. In 2004, you had to go back to John F. Kennedy to find the last president who was elected directly from the Senate – and he only served one term in that chamber. John Kerry was a Senator for nearly twenty years before his presidential run and he was a politician powerless to change Washington. I could not stand behind him.