Swing State (Jo the Writer casts her vote)
In the presidential primaries of 1980, I cast my virgin vote for Jerry Brown for the fantastically principled reason that he was dating Linda Ronstadt, and oh my gosh, how awesomely cool would it be if Linda Ronstadt was the first lady? Brown abandoned the race shortly thereafter, and when I complained to my father that my vote was wasted, he told me very seriously, "No vote is ever wasted. A vote might be misguided or ill-informed. But it is not wasted. It's your voice, and it counts. If all you wanted to say with your vote is 'Linda Ronstadt for first lady', well, that was your priority and you spoke up for it. But here's a few other things that you might consider before you vote in November..."
He talked to me about what a good man Jimmy Carter was. Dad had organized a statewide town hall meeting sort of broadcast during the '76 campaign and was invited to a press gathering at the White House, where he actually met and talked with the president. But a lot had happened to the economy since then. Dad explained to me what it means when you take out a car loan at 26% interest, the impact of the Mariel boatlift, the backstory on the hostage crisis in Iran, and on the flipside, the spirit of forward thinking that was behind the skilled rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. In the following months, I paid attention to the op eds in the newspaper and watched the evening news. In November, I stood for a long time in the voting booth, then voted for Reagan. I supported mostly Dems in state and local elections, but went for Reagan again in '84 and Bush Sr in '88. (C'mon, y'all. Dukakis? Not even Linda Ronstadt could have made him look good.)
In '92 and '96, a progressive Bill Clinton won my vote. I wasn't madly in love with the stolid Al Gore, however, and having seen what a poor governor Bush was here in Texas, I was certain he'd be a catastrophically bad president. I backed McCain in the primaries of 2000. I believed then, and I believe now, that he was a great man, and we'd be living in an entirely different world had he been in charge on 9/11. As I watched his own party consume and digest him on the 24-hour news channels, I told my dad, "I'm not sure I'll ever be able to vote Republican again. I don't know if there's any point in voting in this election at all. It's the evil of two lessers."
"You have to vote!" Dad told me. "It's not a privilege, it's a responsibility. You vote, and you vote your conscience, not your party. Sometimes it's the direction you're voting for, though, not the man himself." Dad still believed in the direction of the Republican party, so ultimately, Dad and I cancelled each other out, one for Bush, one for Gore.
Fast forward past "My Pet Goat" and Mission Accomplished (not). In 2004, with my son approaching draft age and my worst opinions of W confirmed, I decided to do more than cast my vote. I got involved. Gave money, phone-banked for Kerry, a war hero with a conscience. I bought cases of water bottles and snacks and took them to people standing in the long lines outside the Bar Bush Library, not proselytizing for Kerry but letting them know that Liberals love Jesus too. Just before the election, I traveled with my then 16-year-old daughter Jerusha from a solidly red Texas to swing state Florida, where my sister Diana lives. While Jerusha went canvassing and demonstrating with a group of young environmentalists, I signed up online to volunteer at the Democratic headquarters, driving elderly people to the poles.
When I first arrived in Orlando, I visited the Republican HQ, which was as quietly controlled as a corporate office. Then I went to the Democrat HQ, which resembled the aftermath of a Brazilian soccer match. Fast food trash on the floor in the corner, mayhem, noise, idiocy. After I'd waited 40 minutes for someone to find somebody who knew something about anything, a woman told me to go around the office and collect everyone's names and email addresses and type it up in a nice spread sheet.
"A lot of us have gotten really close," she said. "It would be great if we could stay in touch."
Now, let me preface my response to that with the fact that this election coincided with my first really bad bout of arthritis, so I was on a mission and on steroids. A dangerous combo.
"Are you f^@#ing kidding me?" I said. "We are in a fight for the soul of our nation! I'm sorry, but your Kwanzaa card list is going to have to wait. I’m busy trying to get Curious f*<>&ing George out of the F()%#ING WHITE HOUSE!"
I was hastily referred to the guy giving out assignments to people driving elderly voters to the polls. He flailed through rafts of papers and finally sent me off to fetch "three handicapped seniors", but I arrived to find that the calls had been placed by spoilers. No such folks existed. The last trip I made was to pick up Gloria Hooper, who told me she was “92 years and still kicking, a lifelong Democrat.” Mrs. Hooper’s home had been damaged by Hurricane Ivan, and the resulting water and mold had left her chronically ill and disabled, but she hadn’t missed an election since WWII and was determined to make her voice heard. On the way to her polling place, she told me about her father’s electioneering and how he’d impressed on her the importance of her vote. My eyes burned with tears. This made it all worth while. I went inside the local library, fetched a disabled ballot and brought it to her in the air-conditioned car.
“I was afraid the Democrats might not want to give me a ride,” she told me as she marked the ballot. “Since I’m not voting for Kerry.”
“Oh, no, hon,” said the proud lifelong Democrat, “the pastor of my church told us that God has said George Bush is to be president in 2005 when the Rapture comes.”
I tried to respectfully speak to her about this, but she was adamant. She filled out her ballot and I took it back inside, but just before I deposited it, I noticed that it had not been signed. The battle for the soul of our nation was now a battle for my own soul. I could deposit the ballot, knowing it would be declared invalid or have Mrs. Hooper sign it and contribute to the cause I’d spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars fighting. I thought of my father. And Linda Ronstadt. And the cause I was truly fighting for. I returned to the car with Mrs. Hooper’s ballot, deposited it with her signature, and cried all the way back to Houston.
Flash forward again. Past the drowning of New Orleans, the draining of our 401K, and a conspicuous lack of rapture. Four years later, inspired by the forward thinking rhetoric of Barack Obama, I've returned to the swing state to do what I can. I'm not usually one to hold a grudge, but driving into Orlando, I thought of Gloria Hooper in her soggy little house, abandoned by God and FEMA, and I felt a fresh surge of anger.
“Anger is easier to recover than hope,” my niece Jenny told me. “Anger is a safer place to speak from. Hope leaves you open to disaster.”
Jenny is 23 years and kicking. Computer savvy, newly graduated from college, and gung-ho for Obama. She is proud that her genetic history is much like his; her father is a black man from Africa, and her mother is my white as Wonder Bread sister. She and I spent Monday evening making a bucket of black bean salsa and frosting chocolate cupcakes for the workers in the Obama field office, which is as well-ordered, efficient, and intelligently run as a bullet train. But Jenny is all about the ideaology. She's completely convinced that come Wednesday morning, the world will be a better place.
“Aunt Joni, have you seen the video by will i. am? I can’t watch it without bawling.”
I hear her voice, and I feel hope.