My First Presidential

Posted on July 25, 2015 by

I voted for McGovern in ’72 but it was the Carter Campaign four years later that changed my life.

I was in a psychology grad program at Antioch New England in Keene, New Hampshire, across the Connecticut River from Southern Vermont. It was summer and the dems had just nominated the Georgia Governor. After eight years of Nixon / Ford / Kissenger I was desperate to see the republicans out of the white house but there wasn’t much I could do in this region. Back then, Vermont leaned republican and Ford was a shoe-in (he would win the state by 11 points).

So I took leave from graduate school, hitched to New York City and spent several weeks working on the Carter campaign in the most critical and closely watched state race in the nation (Carter would win by less than four percent and New York’s 41 electoral votes was the margin of victory).

As you would suspect, at 25 I was not a key campaign strategist or operative. But I was a reliable volunteer. So they assigned me to the “advance” team, and had me drive staffers from Georgia around the city as we scouted venues for Carter’s upcoming Labor Day visit.

The guys were a little rowdy, excited to be in such a big town (no need to tell them I’d been living in Putney, Vermont). But I enjoyed my job (they called me “driver”) and loved hanging out at campaign headquarters where I remember one day sitting around with Woody Allen and Mitch Miller.  By the way, I only saw Carter once from a distance though the advance guys had promised me a personal introduction. In any case, I’d been bitten by the political bug.  

Back in Vermont in September, I couldn’t wrap my head around the psych stuff as a career (though I would stay very connected to the field in the future through marriage, family, friends and my own therapy).

In my last years in Vermont, I hooked up with various media as an “advocacy journalist” to write about state politics, community and culture and what was clearly on the horizon: a landlocked, rural state with an egalitarian tradition and a half million residents becoming a model of progressive thought and policy.

Just before I moved to Los Angeles, I went back to New York City to cover the 1980 Democratic Convention at Madison Square Garden. A foreboding and pathetic event; the Carter presidency was a flop and Reaganism was rising.  You could feel it in the atmosphere.

The highlight of the convention was Ted Kennedy’s “what if” speech, after which thousands of delegates and visitors refused to stop applauding and howling. They wouldn’t sit down because this was the last hurrah for democrats in the 1980s. (For the record, I was wandering the convention hall at the time, marveling at this spectacle, having just smoked a joint outside with an NPR reporter – who will remain nameless).

A day or two later I was on the convention floor next to Claude Pepper watching President Carter accept the nomination. The response was forced and tepid. This was our candidate, the incumbent, who seemed to be practicing his concession speech. Or maybe that’s just how we heard it.

I cut my teeth in politics in the Northeast from ’76 to ’80 and then relocated to California. It was hard to leave Vermont. But I feel privileged to have been in that state during the early stages of its transition (incubating the likes of Bernie Sanders). And later, I would be lucky enough again to observe the substantial – and somewhat unexpected – political evolution of the Los Angeles region into its own brand of progressive governance.

Comments (7)


  1. I was at the same Demo convention in 1980 – stayed in someone’s room at the Waldorf Astoria with about 10 other “activists” Wore a “I’ll walk with Wimpy” button into the convention – rather obscure now but a “revolt” against the tepid policies of Carter led by William Winpisinger the “progressive” leader of the International Association of Machinists. I was one of the ones shouting for Teddy. I suppose we did “walk out” of the convention into the Manhattan night. Where we were walking to was not clear. I think “Wimpy” was headed to Barry Commoner.

  2. Glen Arnodo says:

    It’s amazing how those early experiences play a big role in shaping what we were to grow into.

    My first presidential election that I volunteered for was George McGovern in my hometown of Cleveland. I was assigned to go door to door in a working class Hungarian neighborhood.

    Given the reception we received, you’d have thought we were going door to door for Joe Stalin.

    It kind of blew me away. These were the same type of people I grew up with who worked in Cleveland’s still bustling steel mills, auto plants and machine shops.

    It put me on the road to thinking that if Democratic politicians couldn’t speak in a language these folks could relate to, the labor movement was the only hope….

  3. Keith Stroup says:

    I very much enjoyed your column. I too knew the Carter folks and thought you captured the tenor of the times accurately. Made me think about some years, and some folks, I haven’t thought about for a while. It was a lovely time to live through.

    Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel

  4. Laurie says:

    Loved this stroll down Memory Lane! And you tell the story very well….

  5. Anne-Marie Otey says:

    Once again you and I are on the same page, Lou! I recently bought Carter’s new book in preparation for his book signing at Vroman’s in Pasadena this Thursday. I’ll then be shipping it to my Mom, who covered the ’80 convention.
    It wasn’t till 12 years later that I too stood in Madison Square Garden and rooted for the Democratic nominee–who, this time, won.

  6. Thomas J. Mackell, Jr. says:

    My first campaign was in 1960 as a high school student when the nation fell in love with JFK. My father had been a delegate to the LA convention. Politics was in our blood.

    I participated in every convention since as a college student and as a trade unionist.

    Those of us who have been fortunate to participate on the inside realize how far our political system has swung away from the people. It is imperative that we educate our youngsters to take an interest and become engaged in our civic responsibility. The elitists would like nothing more than the younger generation fading from activism.

    Let’s fight to get them at the table. Their futures demand it.

  7. david besbris says:

    I remember election 1980 as well. Particularly for the fact that President Carter conceded defeat at 6:50PM PST. Whether that deterred people from going to the still-open-polls is certain. How big effect it had is unknown. What I do believe is that several contests in California were affected, particularly the congressional race in which Demorcrat Carey Peck lost by a narrow margin to right-wing nut Robert Dornan.

    While I’ve come to appreciate post-president Carter as a truly decent and well-meaning man, I cannot forgive him for his political incompetence; exhibited to the very end.

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