Somewhere in a shoebox holding the detritus of my youth there may still rest a signed, black-and-white photograph of Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, who lent his name to legislation related to military engagement in Vietnam and Roe v. Wade and who in 1975 led the committee investigating intelligence-gathering abuses by the CIA and FBI. But none of these had led to me ask for the portrait that would arrive in the mail, tucked snugly into an official-looking envelope emblazoned with an official-looking seal. I was only following instructions: For a middle-school social-studies class, I had to do a report on a U.S. senator, and I was randomly assigned Church. I can’t remember anything about what I might have turned in; what I can remember was that in the months and years to follow, when encountering references to Church amendments or the Church Committee, I had a clue of what was being talked about. And that, as I triumphantly remind my children, is why you do your schoolwork.
Classes in history and government may acquaint young people with history and government, but what sparks the romance with politics? My seventh-grade daughter has shown flickering signs of interest in the current presidential election, and last Wednesday attended with a friend and her parents the rally for Bernie Sanders in New York’s Washington Square Park. She came home tired and bleary-eyed, excited and talkative, with stickers and buttons and a Bernie (first name only, please) poster in the style of a Grateful Dead album cover—bought with the money she was supposed to use for food. She had gripes about the crowds and the clouds of marijuana smoke, but these were minor next to the views firmly expressed well before the event on why women shouldn’t be expected to vote for a presidential candidate just because the candidate is a woman.
From poorer soil plants can also grow. Around the time of my Church report, I remember watching (as apparently do others) an episode of the TV series Happy Days, set if you recall in an idealized version of the 1950s, in which main character Richie Cunningham defies his father to campaign for Adlai Stevenson. When Dwight Eisenhower wins, Richie and the kids—and by extension a generation—are distraught. Was it really like that? I asked my mother. The wistful solemnity with which she answered “yes” made a lasting impression. But so did watching with her, one year before, the resignation of Richard Nixon on a nine-inch black-and-white TV, and, one year after, listening to my father bemoan the failure of Republicans in Kansas City to nominate Ronald Reagan. It was up to me to make sense of it all.
That involved enduring the lectures from my father on the futility of rooting for Jimmy Carter (correct, if you’re talking only about the outcome), of voting for Walter Mondale (right again), and of doubling down on Michael Dukakis (okay already), as well as the sheer wrong-headedness of it all (still not convinced). In reflective moments, though, he would explain his vote for John F. Kennedy—Catholicism definitely factored in—and in unguarded moments his vote in 1964 for LBJ: “Are you kidding? Goldwater?” For her part, my mother would shake her head over the bellicose utterances of President Reagan or refer in quiet and maddeningly oblique langauge to her support for and (possible?) involvement in certain activities associated with the Berrigan brothers. The household tension was, I realize now, of the productive kind.
Tuesday is primary day in New York, the first time in a long time primary day has been so important in the state. Who did or didn’t vote for the 1994 crime bill, or who made how much in closed-door speeches to Wall Street firms, or that many well-meaning people prefer to support the candidate they believe stands a better chance against an opponent in the general election—these are for my daughter less interesting at the moment than the fact that the candidates are here, sometimes right down the street. She didn’t get a black-and-white photo in the mail, but she got a lot of likes on Instagram from the Washington Square rally, not to mention the buttons for her backpack and the poster for her wall. If it doesn’t yet help bring the revolution, may the experience and memories still guide her thirty years from now.
As for some voters who first felt the burn thirty or more years ago, the choice between candidates—at least on the Democratic side—is a matter of head vs. heart (see Paul Moses earlier today on dotCommonweal). Undecided primary-goers seem as uncomfortably nagged by memories of presidential ballots nobly and futily cast as by the prospect of supporting a candidate their younger selves might have rejected out of hand, and for understandable reason. The line misattributed to Churchill about brains and hearts and the lack thereof at certain ages, if not precisely applicable, comes to mind. Couldn't head and heart work, so to speak, hand in hand? If it were that easy, maybe we wouldn’t be drawn to politics in the first place.