The first presidential election I can remember being aware of was the one that pitted Gerald Ford against Jimmy Carter in 1976 when I was turning 11. I urged my parents to vote for Ford that year. I don’t know who they actually voted for.
The reason I liked Ford was that I had seen him on TV that summer presiding over the Bicentennial celebrations at the nation’s capitol. At some point he urged every American to go out and ring a bell to celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday. I was so excited that I rushed around the house looking for a bell. When I couldn’t find one I settled for clinking a glass with a spoon and I went outside happily ringing my makeshift bell.
Four years later when I was a freshman in high school my government class held a mock election between the incumbent President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. I cast my “vote” for Carter. I had a thing about supporting incumbents back then, I guess. I urged my parents to vote for Carter, too. I don’t know who they voted for.
As you might surmise from this, my parents were pretty much apolitical when I was growing up. Politics was rarely discussed at home and I was not pushed to support or oppose either political party. My dad was a Vietnam veteran and both my parents worked in the oil and gas industry. But the world of politics rarely if ever invaded our little world as we moved from one small Texas town to another.
Reagan’s victory made little difference to me at first. I probably wouldn’t have thought much about it, but then came the assassination attempt the next year that riveted the entire nation’s attention. I remember being shocked that such a thing could happen in America. I anxiously read about and watched every update on the president’s condition and was impressed both with his courage and his good nature throughout the ordeal. It was hard not to like Reagan after that point and I certainly had no reason not to.
When the next election rolled around and I was finally old enough to vote I was firmly in the Reagan camp. I was a freshman in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M where maintaining traditions was all important. The bulletin board in my dorm room was neatly decorated with pictures of Reagan and bumper stickers from his re-election campaign. A good friend of mine from back home told me he was planning to vote for Walter Mondale and I thought he was crazy. I didn’t know anything about Mondale, but I knew that I did not like him because he was daring to challenge my hero - Ronald Reagan.
I never attended a College Republicans meeting but my dorm was blanketed with their literature such as the flyers that said “Walter Mondale could be your next president. If that doesn’t scare you, it should.” When I cast my first ballot, I didn’t stop with voting for Reagan, I voted straight Republican down the line - Phil Gramm for Senate, Joe Barton for Congress, etc. There was no question that I was a Republican.
But something happened during the next four years that turned all of that on its head. By the time the next election rolled around I was rabidly anti-Republican and pro-Democrat. I voted for Jesse Jackson in the primary - just to make a statement - and then volunteered to work on the local Dukakis campaign in College Station against George H.W. Bush.
So what happened? How and why did I make such a dramatic leap in just four years? I’ve often wondered about that and I will try here as best as I can to explain it. I can’t recall precisely when each of these events occurred, so I can’t draw a neat little timeline that says this lead to that, but in total these are the things that most effected the direction of my political odyssey.
When I voted for Reagan in 1984 it was because I was enamored with Reagan the man. I had given little thought to the political ideologies that lay beneath the various candidates. I wasn’t really a conservative in the political sense. I remember getting into an argument at some point with my friend Eddie over whether or not the state should provide education for the children of illegal immigrants. I decided if they weren’t legal residents then they should not get any of the benefits of our society such as a free education. But Eddie (my former high school debate partner) made a passionate case in favor of educating everyone who lives within our borders regardless of their immigration status. Not only was it best for society to not have uneducated youths running around causing mischief, but we had a moral responsibility as a society to educate all human beings in our midst. I suddenly found myself unable to argue the position I had started out with and it made me question many of my other core beliefs. What did I really believe? I had to have some core principles to stand on and I wasn’t willing to just let those be dictated to me by some political party.
At some other point, and I can’t remember exactly when, I attended a symposium at Texas A&M on the death penalty by someone from Amnesty International. Of course, I was in favor of the death penalty. Who wasn’t? It just seemed like such an obvious thing and I had never given it a second thought, so the idea that someone would try and make a case against it was intriguing to me. Once again, I found myself feeling intellectually outmatched as I listened to the speaker go through the myriad reasons why the death penalty is wrong. He didn’t even go into all of the religious arguments against capital punishment. He just went over all the data showing that executions don’t deter crime. How the punishment is applied disproportionately to the poor and to minorities. How almost every other industrialized nation had eliminated capital punishment. How many times it has been used against people who were later proven to have been innocent. I remember walking out of that symposium wondering how many other political views I held that I could not defend.
These were both key occurrences that served to shake up my not-so-set-in-stone belief system back then. But there were two other events that were even more crucial to my transformation - the Iran-Contra scandal and the JFK assassination. More on those in the next installment.