Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Spirit of '76

One of my colleagues stopped by my office today to drop off one of those "Bush-Cheney 2004" buttons with a red diagonal line superimposed over the text. We got to talking about politics, combating our post-RNC depression with a little solidarity. Interestingly, though we were both born in 1968, she came to political consciousness later than I did. Reagan, she confessed, never troubled her the way the younger Bush has. I told her that I started reading Time magazine in early 1976 and knew before that year's Republican convention that it would be a very bad thing if Reagan beat out the incumbent Gerald Ford. By the time 1980 rolled around, I was a sixth grader who feared and despised everything Reagan stood for. That didn't change after the events at the Washington Hilton, the economic turn of 1983, the L.A. Olympics, or the overtures to Gorbachev.

I loathe our current President. But the intensity of my feelings towards him haven't blinded me to the fact that it was Ronald Reagan and the people who turned his name into a synonym for "good" who made the cynical deceit of this Bush Administration possible. I believe in giving credit where credit is due. So I blame you, Mr. Brown Suit, for my nation's death spiral. Perhaps a graphic designer can work up a "widening gyre" motif for whatever greenback you end up on.

Returning to the mysteries of 1976, I wonder what led my eight-year-old mind down the path to political certainty. It seems unlikely that Time or the network news were that biased against Reagan. And I was as caught up in the bicentennial festivities as any innocent Pennsylvania youth, proud that the Liberty Bell had been transported to safety through our little valley and that Philadelphia was where the United States took its first breath. I marched about in red-white-and-blue gear, sang patriotic songs, and read everything I could about the Revolutionary War. But my patriotism didn't prevent me from becoming partisan.

As the election drew near, the children in Mrs. Patterson's third-grade class at Springfield Elementary were polled on their preferences in the race for the Presidency. Predictably, they all "voted" for Gerald Ford, simply because he was the President. Except me, of course. I distinctly recall being disgusted -- as disgusted as a happy third-grader can get -- with the realization that none of my classmates had shown themselves capable of thinking about the election. My sense of superiority sustained me as I shocked them all by declaring that I wanted Jimmy Carter to win.

"Why?" asked our teacher. Despite patting myself on the back for reasoning about the contest, my answer was as much a reflex as my classmates' preference for the incumbent: "Because I'm a Democrat." In that moment, I knew that I would never vote for a Republican as surely as I knew my own name. It please me to declare today that, even though I hadn't even mastered the multiplication tables, my conviction has stood the test of time.

The coda to this tale of taking sides came on the day of the election in November. My mother took me to the polling station, making me wait in the antiseptic institutional space while she went behind the curtain. When she emerged, I asked her whom she had voted for. But she wouldn't tell me, either in the building or on the drive home, insisting -- as adults of her generation are wont to do -- that voting is an exclusively private matter. Finally, though, after I had relentlessly hammered her to confess that she had voted for Jimmy Carter, she stopped whatever kitchen activity she was engaged in and fixed me with a severe look.

"I voted for Eugene McCarthy."

As the backwash of her startling words receded from my mind, I felt my newfound political certainty tumbling over and over. The political landscape was clearly not as cut-and-dried as I had imagined. You could be opposed to the Republicans and still not vote for the Democratic candidate. It was a wonderful lesson, one I grow more grateful for with each passing year. The strange thing, though, is that I have yet to match my mother's daring. Maybe it's the fact that the Reagan Revolution raised the stakes for my generation, but until now, despite reading widely in radical literature, I haven't voted against the Democratic Party.

Who knows? Some day I might. But you can rest assured that if that does happen, I sure as hell won't be voting for a Republican. Although there have been politicians I respect in the Republican Party, they can never make up for the damage it has wrought around the globe. Sorry, Mr. Lincoln: your descendants did you wrong.

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