My First Presidential
Posted on July 25, 2015 by Lou
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.