I was in elementary school when my father started my preparation for life as a registered voter. He was watching the 1968 republican convention and took time to explain the concept of ballots, roll calls, delegates and candidates. I can’t say I remember much but I do have recollection of a roll call as Richard Nixon battled Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan and George Romney (the guy born in Mexico) for the nomination. History tells us others were on the ballot but those four are the names that stuck in my mind, the names my father took time to explain who and why and what if.
Yes, I stayed up very late. And it had nothing to do with preserving the two-party system. Rather, it was about staying up late and my father giving me a glimpse of the adult world. It could’ve been the democratic convention - Chicago police, at the behest of Mayor Richard Daley, beating the dog out of protesters - Hubert Humphrey holding off a challenge from Eugene McCarthy (the anti-war guy). It was about the experience, not the politics. And when the morning dawned, and Nixon had secured his party’s nomination, I began to immerse myself in learning our political system. Where it had been, where it was, and where it might go.
My interests varied from our country’s history to the lives and policies of its presidents and their cabinets to the state level where Texas politics was and remains on par with the very best - or worst - of reality television. The Sharpstown scandal still comes to mind. And then in the midst of my education Nixon took “early retirement” and Gerald Ford became president. And the 1976 election taught me loved ones can remain loved ones while standing firm on opposing views.
The difference apparently wasn’t great and my parents never quarreled. They never told me why they agreed to disagree. Both were registered republicans, but my father backed Ford and my mother backed Reagan. And we had both signs in our yard. It wasn’t nearly as interesting as a neighbor girl’s yard in 1968. Her family had three signs - Nixon, Humphrey and George Wallace. Can you imagine the dinner conversations? And at school Kay told me it was her idea to get the Nixon sign. She was only 8 years old and already blazing her own path.
I watched the 1976 republican convention with great interest, all the while wondering if the peace in our household would be broken once the ballots were tallied. Ford won the nomination but lost the election. Reagan lost the nomination but eventually re-emerged. Peace remained in our household. The system - at least within our home - still worked. The convention also marked a turning point in my preparation. It was the last time I can recall my parents sharing their views as a parent might speak with a child. Thereafter, what I knew of their views was based on conversations in which they treated me as an adult. No education. No indoctrination. And with my first ballot two years away I was free to think how I chose to think.
So I did. I debated in the hallways at school and I debated over lunch. I pieced together my view of the world. Vietnam, abortion, unions, Planet of the Apes - yes, there is political theory behind the emergence of apes with superior intelligence. And as the years progressed I found myself called “the most conservative” by democratic friends and “the most liberal” by republican friends. I was a registered republican but never voted a straight ticket. Again, I learned from my parents.
For some reason my parents preferred republicans in Washington and democrats in Austin and close to home. So they never pulled the lever that allowed a voter to vote - in one swift motion - all one party or the other. They stood behind the drawn curtain and voted carefully and thoughtfully. They viewed each race, each candidate, each issue as a separate matter. And I’m certain what they told the other about how they voted wasn’t always the truth.
I covered the 1980 presidential election for the college newspaper in as much as one can cover a national election on a college campus. I went to a viewing party. And I was assigned the John Anderson party as I was a sports writer - so not one to be trusted with serious issues. Besides, Anderson was an independent, was bound to beaten like a dining room rug, and his event wasn’t so much a viewing party as it was a keg party. I paid a quick visit to the Jimmy Carter party - sad, sad lot - and I made a brief appearance at the Reagan party. I felt of chill, but remain to this day unsure of its meaning.
Returning to school a few years later, I joined the Young Republicans and partied with the Young Democrats. Why? Young Republicans wear ties and talk about issues in which they have no intention of personally participating like bombing Libya, taking on the Soviets and conquering Canada. Good group if you want to get angry. Young Democrats just like to have fun. And they had more girls. So you can see the benefit of working the two-party system. If your views are perceived to oppose those hosting the party, you’re bound to receive more attention than if your views are in line with those of the hosts.
Then I graduated and found I had no choice but deal with the real world on its terms. I had two degrees, a bit of debt and a wide-eyed view of life. A world awaited that was bound to teach me the difference between truth and hypocrisy, faith and despair, commitment and hollow support. My education as a registered voter was short of completion. But the preparation my father initiated when I was a young boy had led me to a point where I confidently could venture out on my own.