It was a chilly evening – as I recall, snow was falling in Jamestown. Or threatening to, anyway.
I walked from my “home” at the time – Watson Hall at Jamestown College – to the polling station. I turned the decision over and over and over again in my head.
On the one hand, I didn’t see myself as one of “those” people; “fatcats”, “fundamentalists”, “warmongers”, any of the labels I’d been painstakingly trained to believe applied to conservatives. Truth be told, I still saw Republicans – or at least a lot of other Republicans – that way. And I believed that government – a rational, “good” government, the kind that a lot of Good People, like me, would elect, if we got the chance – did have a place in making peoples’ lives better. Four years ago the previous summer, at North Dakota Boys State – a mock state government put on by the American Legion – I’d become the state Federalist Party chairman. I wrote a party platform, all full of “redistribute” this and “regulate” that, the kind of thing that Paul Wellstone would have just loved. And we won.
And the press – which was even then liberal, especially the parts of it I paid attention to, “Rolling Stone” magazine and the like, had left me terrified four years earlier at the thought that Ronald Reagan was going to re-institute the draft and send us all overseas to fight for Exxon.
On the other hand, some of my adolescent certainty in my adolescent beliefs was decaying. I’d felt the first twinges years earlier, reading “The Black Book” – the B’nai B’rith accounting of Nazi war atrocities – and realizing that a disarmed society was ripe for the picking. And I remembered listening to Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” speech, and thinking “What – you got yours, and now you’re telling me I have to settle for less?”.
And I saw what had happened in Vietnam, where a liberal majority in Congress had rendered the sacrifice of 56,000 American soldiers utterly vain, and the national humiliation of the Iran Hostage Crisis. And I read Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, and wondered if, indeed, national weakness and self-abnegation would indeed keep all those missiles that the goverment had planted around me in North Dakota from firing after all.
My high school pal and unwitting political mentor, Dwight Rexin – a real-life Alex P. Keaton in his own way, a fire-breathing radical libertarian-conservative – grabbed me (rhetorically) by the scruff of my neck through 11th and 12th grades and explained to me – very, very patiently – how the stagflation that still wracked North Dakota was a product of wanton government intervention in the economy – the kind of thing I’d been brought up to think was a good thing that benefited real people.
And a year before, a family of Polish refugees, the Krzameks, had moved to town. And hearing their side of the Cold War – the oppressed “citizens” of the Second World – gave me a perspective on the time that I’d never had.
And at college, at the behest of my English major advisor, Dr. James Blake – who, after a few months of talking with me about politics, current events, faith, life and the world around us, told me in his New York accent “You’re no liberal, Mitch. Seriously”. He had me read “The Gulag”, and “1984” to learn current events, and “Crime and Punishment” and “War and Peace” and “The Possessed” to learn the philosophical cases for and against the big, “progressive” state, and about Jack Kemp’s free-market reform proposals, and P.J. O’Rourke’s “Republican Party Reptile” to see just how conservatism could resonate with a guitar-playing, grunge-before-it-was-cool fish out of North Dakota water.
And all of this tumbled around in my head as I signed in, and got my ballot.
On the one hand? I was angry. I knew what I really was! A thoughtful, “Moderate”, “good government”…something.
And on the other hand? None of that seemed to add up anymore. “Good Government”, the world around us seemed to show, really was the one that governed least, and left the most to the people themselves.
The lady at the desk gave me my ballot – a “butterfly” ballot – and pointed me to a voting “booth”, a little plastic carel.
And I opened the ballot up to “President of the United States”. Because of North Dakota’s ballot-access laws, there were something like two dozen candidates on the ballot. And because of a court case that had been filed and won by a Jamestown man, Harley McClain, after the 1980 election, (he’d protested the fact that the GOP and Democrat candidates were at the top of the ballot, and the SCOTUS agreed, and so ballots were thereever-after either alphabetical or random), I had to dig down through the choices.
I got to “M”. “Harley McClain – Chemical Farming Banned Party” was right above Walter Mondale.
I thought about Mondale – spawn of Carter. The needle hovered over the chad…
…and I stopped to think. I came close to punching McClain’s chad as a protest against the conundrum I was in.
And then, in a mental flash of “do it before I regret it”, I punched Ronald Reagan.
I dashed through the rest of the choices. I think I split my ticket, likely voting for Byron Dorgan for US House as a sort of emotional contrition for voting Reagan. I turned in my ballot.
I walked up First Street South, then down Main Street to “Fred’s Den”, a bar which had open stage night on Tuesdays. There was a set of drums and some amps and guitars on stage, but the evening hadn’t started yet. I ordered a Stroh’s at the bar and had a seat. The TV in the corner was tuned in to the local cable access station, and they were showing election results from around the US and around town.
As I sat, in came a small group of men, including none other than Presidential candidate Harley McClain himself; a hippie and musician, he was a regular at open stage night. At Open Stage the previous week, I’d promised him I’d vote for him.
Not only had I not voted for him, I’d pretty much voted diametrically against him; one of the songs he sang constantly at open-stage night, a 12-bar blues song he sang while accompanying himself on the guitar, made his politics pretty clear:
Gonna sing a song about Ronald Reagan
That man is a pagan.
Gonna sing a song about Ronald Reagan,
yeah, that man is a pagan…
“Hey, Mitch!”, he yelled, “Didja vote?”
“Yep! Voted for ya!”, I lied.
As open stage started up, the result started coming in. I’d voted in my parents ward, Ward 2, where my driver’s license was still addressed.
Cable Access ran the vote totals by the precinct. Harley Clain got 0 votes in Ward 2.
In fact, he got exactly three votes in all of Jamestown.
“Hey!”, McClain yelled at the screen. “Don’t you vote in Ward 2? There’s voter suppression going on here!”
I looked in panic at the screen. There as a “McClain” vote in the ward containing the College.
“I voted at school”, I answered. Mollified, McClain relented, and we watched as he racked up exactly 4 votes in Jamestown.
Reagan carried Jamestown decisively, except for the precincts by the College, where he carried Jamestown merely convincingly. He won North Dakota with just shy of 100% of the vote, as I recall, and won all but two of the states – the greatest landslide in history.
I was happy about my vote.
Not happy enough to tell my parents, of course.
Oh, yeah – open stage night. Tim Cross, Scott Massine and me (drums, bass and guitar) did a couple of songs. “Summertime Blues”, “I Will Follow” and something else, I think. And we each got a free beer.
That was fun, too.
So that’s what I was doing thirty years ago tonight.