In 1968 I was too young to remember.
In February 1972 we moved from the South Bronx to small-town Ohio. I don’t remember discussing politics with any of my Ohio classmates. I do have a dim memory of being with classmates in someone’s station wagon when we still lived in New York, where we chanted: Nixon, Nixon, he’s our man! He’s our man for the garbage can! McGovern, McGovern, he’s our man! He’s our man for the President stand!
By 1976 I had sat before the TV to watch the Watergate hearings as well as Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech, witnessed both Agnew and Nixon resign, unironically sent for a “Whip Inflation Now” button, and read news stories of Ford’s clumsiness. The Presidency had become a human figure to me and, while I was still much too young to vote, I empathized with Carter’s humility and humanity.
In 1980 the country itself had been humiliated by the Iran hostage crisis. Ronald Reagan visited my hometown for an enormous rally just two days before the election. One of my sisters placed a tape recorder on the stage to record his speech; when she went to check on it, the tape had stopped and she realized that a Secret Service agent had turned it off. I understood the enthusiasm of everyone around me for this change.
In 1984 I voted for the first time. The polling place was off-campus and it was exactly as a I imagined, a machine with red levers. During college I hardly engaged in mass media except for college radio and my morning dose of the Cornell Daily Sun delivered to my dorm room, yet somehow I was aware of Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign theme. But I looked beyond the tax cuts and the improved economy and saw a tragic lack of sympathy for the AIDS crisis; the over-simplification and underlying racism of the War on Drugs; the growing financial inequality that spawned Yuppies and glorified attitudes that later exploded in expressions like “greed is good”; the increased military spending. Outside the Straight, I signed letters for Amnesty International; I affixed a “Bread Not Bombs” button to my knapsack. And I watched Reagan win against Mondale in a landslide.
In 1988 when I was a grad student at Berkeley, I watched Lloyd Bentsen eviscerate Dan Quayle in the Vice Presidential debate. I was standing in line at a BBQ joint in Oakland, it might have been Everett and Jones. Everyone in the shop, watching the single TV behind the cashier, we looked at each other and laughed. Nevertheless, George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis, despite Iran-Contra, running on the legacy as the former Vice President of the Teflon President.
In 1992 I was teaching at Andover, where Bush had attended school many years ago. In the previous election, Bush had promised, “Read my lips, no new taxes” — then he raised taxes. Meanwhile, the young and charismatic Bill Clinton won by focusing our attention on the economy.
In 1996 I was teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as summers in writing workshops with Bard College. Clinton had become the Democratic version of a Teflon President. “It’s the economy, stupid” was the unofficial election mantra — and indeed the stock market was booming and the national debt was actually going down. Dole/Kemp didn’t stand a chance; Clinton cruised to reelection.
In 2000 we were living in Santa Fe while I taught at St. John’s College. I closely watched the early returns between Al Gore and George W. Bush, focused on which way Florida would go. When the networks called it for Gore, I felt liberated to vote in New Mexico for Nader, on the principle that Gore as my favored major party candidate wouldn’t be endangered, so I could support alternatives like the Green Party. Florida ended up being contested, and the younger Bush was installed.
In 2004 we were living in New York City. Living in a state that would inevitably support the Democratic Kerry/Edwards ticket, I wrote in the Green Party candidates. Regardless, W. won a second term.
In 2008 we had moved to Pittsburgh. I voted for Barack Obama over John McCain.
In 2012 I saw Obama speak in person on the Carnegie Mellon campus. I favored him again over Mitt Romney in that year’s election.
In 2016, I was caught up in the populist movement. While much more energized about Bernie Sanders, I voted for Hillary Clinton. Instead, the populist Donald Trump was elected.
In 2020, I voted in Pittsburgh once more, for the first time this year by mail. I pumped my fists in the air after I dropped the envelope into a mailbox on Penn Avenue. Last night, on the eve of the election, Joe Biden spoke in my neighborhood — exactly forty years to the day after I saw Ronald Reagan in the final days of his campaign — which I took as a good omen. As of this moment, the results of the election are uncertain: Arizona and Nevada are leaning towards Biden, North Carolina and Georgia are leaning towards Trump, and too many votes are uncounted in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and here in Pennsylvania. And yet, less than an hour ago, from inside the White House the President threatened to go to the Supreme Court so that my vote will not be counted. Every vote must be counted. If Trump wants to rule a country where he decides whose votes count and whose don’t, he should leave the United States. What an utter embarrassment.